Urban Essentials

28 July 2011 Ideas

Transportation has a huge role in shaping the way cities function and grow. Everyone wants to to be close to a subway station, so naturally cities coalesce into dense clusters around those station areas. Nobody wants to live on a highway onramp, so highway expansion pushes urban sprawl outwards in all directions. So it’s not without reason that city staff the world over are trying to marry these two ideas of transportation and land use, i.e. planning for the kinds of buildings and activities that lend themselves to dense, walkable neighbourhoods.

It makes sense to conduct land use planning at the same time as a large transportation project. All over the GTA (and Hamilton!), municipalities are expanding their rapid transit networks. And it helps with getting provincial funding if you can prove that land use policy won’t be at odds with the new subway, LRT, or rapid bus system you’re hoping to build. But there’s a delicate dance that needs to be done to ensure land use policies aren’t dependent on a billion-dollar transit line.

Increased transit options are always a good thing. So are comfortable walking environments. But while they complement each other, they both shouldn’t be scrapped if the transportation project doesn’t pull through. If, for example, transit funding is stonewalled by a city council that doesn’t want to commit or by a change of heart at the provincial level, more progress might be made by focusing on walkability alone.

The great European cities to which we lowly North American urbanists aspire grew up without the automobile. Walking, the main mode of transportation, shaped those cities before there was such a thing as centralized city planning. So, we shouldn’t expect rapid transit alone to save us from suburbia. We should work on making the original transportation mode - walking - easier and more comfortable.

Accommodating pedestrians doesn’t cost very much - wide sidewalks, trees for shade, benches to sit on, predictable crosswalks, flexible street networks, these are all things that have evolved naturally in cities that aren’t based around the automobile. And those cities have been better prepared to embrace rapid transit than those that start with cul-de-sacs and concrete cloverleafs.

Investment in rapid transit is a chicken-and-egg situation. The community may not, at present, have the population to sustain a new rapid transit line. But the argument is that the advent of rapid transit will cause people to flock to the area in order to use it.

That’s all good and well, but sometimes it’s difficult to convince the decisionmakers of the benefits that rapid transit will bring. Not to worry - throw them an easy choice by shifting the focus to the pedestrian environment. Everyone is a pedestrian at some point in their day, whether they’re going for a jog, walking to the corner store, heading to their car in the parking lot, or making their way to the bus stop. Enhanced sidewalks and other pedestrian features are not just for the elderly and disabled - we all benefit.

The crucial point, though, is that this change of focus can only happen quick enough if the land use planning is not intertwined too tightly with the rapid transit planning. I’m all for integrated urbanism, but let’s try to prevent politicians from throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Sam Nabi

Comments

Goaliedave 22 August 2011, 01:45

maybe they should design commercial and recreational use in a big ring. In the centre put all the homes, parks, walkways, etc for people who don’t want cars, and who don’t mind cycling or walking tothe store or work. Then roads can extend out like spokes from the commerical ring and people who love cars can live outside and drive in from wherever they want.

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