Cities and Commutes

Oliver Moore published an interesting summary of the use of cycling and public transit in the November 30th edition of the Globe and Mail. He gleaned the information from a recent Statistics Canada report.

In 2016, he reports, 74.0% of workers in Canada commute to work by car, truck or van as the driver, 12.4% on public transit, 6.9% walking or riding a bicycle, 5.5% as a passenger of a car and 1.1% by other means. Almost 80% of all Canadians commute in private vehicles.

Bike riders on the Martin Goodman Trail in Toronto

In large cities “active” commuting is on the rise. In Toronto 6.7% commuted to work by cycling or walking, in Montreal the figure is 7.2%, and in Vancouver 9.1%. In the B.C. City of Victoria, the number is 16.9%, the highest in the country.

Moore points out that in the last 20 years “the number of people using bicycles as their main method of commuting nearly doubled, rising 87.9%.” At the same time “the number of people using public transit increased 31.5%.”

Large cities are seeing the most changes. Across the country almost 80% of workers commute by private vehicle, but in the three largest cities, it drops to less than 70%. In Toronto almost one in four commuters use transit, the highest in the country. Vancouver has seen a doubling of transit users in the last 15 years, since the SkyTrain rail network opened.

Despite the rise in the use of transit and cycling, gridlock of the streets continues to get worse in the large cities. In Toronto, the average one-way commuting duration in 2016 was 34 minutes, Montreal 30.0 minutes, and Vancouver 29.7 minutes. Not surprisingly, the general rule across the country is that, the larger the city, the longer the commute.

The question remains, how are we going to build more livable cities, if commuters continue to use private vehicles to get to work or school? There are a variety of answers.

  • Stop urban sprawl and increase the density of existing built up communities.
  • Build better transit, particularly high speed, rapid transit like subways, LRT and commuter trains.
  • Encourage cycling across the urban areas by building dedicated, safe bike lanes.
  • Make the pedestrian experience safer by widening sidewalks and improving crosswalks. At the same time improve and beautify the public domain by making walking on city streets more enjoyable.
  • Discourage the use of cars in the congested districts of our cities by narrowing streets, creating pedestrian only streets, and other traffic calming improvements.

Climate change is another very important issue when it comes to our use of cars and trucks. We will never reduce our greenhouse gas emissions until electric vehicles become the norm.

Spiraling Housing Costs and Affordable Housing

Pressure is being applied – yet again – on the provincial government to increase the land supply in the GTA to decrease the costs of housing. This time the report is coming from Benjamin Tal, an economist with CIBC.

Urban sprawl in the GTA.

Urban sprawl in the GTA.

This demand matches the developer’s dream of building houses on fertile farmers’ fields and across the Oakridges Moraine. Yes, it would produce a few extra houses for people in the top income groups, but it would do nothing to meet the demand for good housing at a reasonable cost, and it would not stop the spiraling costs of housing in Toronto.

What is more, if the Ontario government were to allow developers to build single family houses on greenfields, it would increase the existing problems of traffic gridlock, and unsustainable suburban sprawl. The price of housing would continue to spiral upwards, because demand could never be satisfied this way, and demand is what is driving up the cost of housing.

Benjamin Tal believes the problem is the cost of land, but there is lots of land available for development in our cities at a reasonable cost. Land in the downtown core of Toronto is expensive, but just outside the downtown along the avenues like Eglinton, and Lawrence there are scores of good sites. A little further out, in Scarborough and North York the land is even less expensive.

These sites are not appropriate for low density single family houses, but they are ideal for mid-rise apartment buildings of eight to twelve stories. Complexes like this can have large units, which can provide excellent housing for families, and if the buildings are located along streets with good transit, residents can live without a car. That makes living even more affordable.

So if the problem is not the availability of land at a reasonable price, what is the problem? Some blame the developers. I used to do that. But if you look closely at the problem you will soon discover that with the cost of land, material, labour, and all of the other items it takes to build condos, especially large units suitable for families, the costs make the units unaffordable for middle and low income families.

Housing costs have been a problem in Canada at least since the end of the Second World War. In the past, governments built public housing like Regent Park and Toronto Community Housing. This proved to be a disaster with rising social problems in many of these developments. Public housing was killed in the late ‘60s in Canada.

Then the federal government changed its policies and provided funds for co-operative and non-profit housing. This is mixed income housing, and this program delivered the best affordable housing program this country has ever seen. Some see it as the most successful housing program in the developed world. Short sighted federal Conservative and Liberal governments withdrew money from the program in the 1980s, and finally killed it in the early 1990s.

Canada today is the only developed country that does not have an affordable housing program. Our housing policy is driven by the “trickle down theory.” The belief is that, if new housing is built, like the condos downtown for high income people, it will free up other housing at lower cost, for low and middle income families. Only this does not work in Toronto. Demand is too strong, and it continues to drive up prices.

Benjamin Tal is right on one thing. The only way to bring down housing prices is by increasing the supply, but his solution will only create more unsustainable suburban sprawl. The way to increase supply is by building multi-unit, affordable housing, with some government financial assistance. We need another program like the one that created the co-op and non-profit housing of the past.

The Trudeau Liberals have to deliver on their promise of a government led affordable housing program. If not, the price of housing is going to continue to climb in our cities, and hundreds of thousands of people in Toronto, the GTA, and the rest of the country are going to suffer.

The problems of sprawl (again)

In a recent op. ed. piece in the Star, (November30, 2015) John Barber pointed out that “Low density housing starts in the urban region has dropped by half since 2002 according to provincial data.” New home sales have dropped 30 percent and there are five times as many condominiums for sale than houses.

So, are the problems of suburban sprawl over? Hardly. As Barber points out, that is not true in the outer reaches of Toronto’s suburbs. The town of Milton, in Halton Region, far on the western edge of the GTA, is now the fastest growing municipality in Canada. Single family houses are springing up by the score in farmer’s fields.

Growth in Hamilton continues on greenfields and the older parts of the city are losing population. Pamela Blair, who did a major study on growth in the Golden Horseshoe, points out that between 2001 and 2011 the city lost between 6,000 and 7,000 people while, at the same time, 10,000 units were built in greenfields with a population gain of 35,000. (CATCH News, December 7, 2015)

Mississauga city centre surrounded by low density housing

Mississauga city centre surrounded by low density housing

Our cities have changed rapidly in recent years. Intensification is accelerating in the City of Toronto and the satellite cities that surround it, like Mississauga, Markham, and Vaughan. High rise, condo development in the urban core, and the centers of the satellite cities, have increased densities. Meanwhile, in the smaller cities across southern Ontario, urban sprawl, across pristine farmland, continues unabated.

The reasons are not hard to figure out. The cost of housing in Toronto and the near suburbs is driving people into high density housing, and the long commutes discourage people from living in low density suburbs. There is also a cultural change going on. Many have lost their fear of the city and want to live in, or close to, the downtown to be part of the action.

The same is not true in places like Milton and Hamilton. Land remains cheap, and that reduces the cost of single family housing. Many good paying jobs are located in the suburbs, and the commutes by car are relatively short.

It is the implication of this for public policy that have the politicians and policy gurus worried. Toronto and the suburbs around the city have no problem of suburban sprawl. There is no farmland left. Multi-unit housing, in the form of condos, are encouraged because it is less expensive for the municipality to service, and more environmentally sustainable. Transit and the reduction of traffic is the only viable solution to the transportation problems. This will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, make streets safer, and free the public domain for other pedestrian friendly activities.

It is not public policy that is reshaping our large cities. Urban problems of traffic, pollution, congested streets, and deteriorating neighbourhoods, have led to higher density communities and the reinvention of an exciting urban lifestyle that favours the quality of life. In a sense, the urban crisis has led, in a natural way, to solutions that will enhance urban life.

But the question remains: should Ontario government policy force high density development on smaller communities? In a sense this is taking an urban form, appropriate to big cities, and imposing it on communities that are very different. Is that fair?

Framing the issue in this way misses the point. If suburban sprawl continues, we are creating environmental problems and loading costs onto other people in the municipality and the province.

Policies encouraging sprawl lead to car dependency because transit is simply not economically viable in low density communities. Traffic leads to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and contributes to the crisis of climate change. Low density communities are inefficient. Services like garbage collection, have to be subsidized. Transit, new schools, roads, sewers, and many more services have to be built at public expense.

The bottom line, to use a phrase of conservative politicians, is that new suburbs must be subsidized by the rest of the population, and that, in the long run, is unviable. Add to that the loss of good farmland and added pollution and we have big problems that will multiply over the years. Those are the reasons sprawl should disallowed.