Category Archives: transit

Are Mega Transit Projects the ‘Swimming Pools’ of the 20s?

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During the last half of the century and a few years into the new millenium, every village, town, city and metropolis seemed hell-bent on building a big, giant swimming pool.

It seemed to be almost mandatory for any city worth its salt to have somewhere to go and sit in someone else’s pee.

So now that most cities have moved on and are patching the endless leaky pipes and mildewy change rooms, how are planners supposed to waste public money?

Transit.

What’s that? How could I possibly stand in the way of transit? Especially public transit?

I mean, I’d have to be the most NIMBYist, elitist, backwards, pubic-hating moron on the planet to stand in the way of vast sums of money being spent on public transit.

Well, I guess I’m one of those.

But let me backtrack a little and please, hear me out.

Let’s start again with a brief history lesson.

Transit used to be central to folks that lived in the core area. Cities were serviced by hundreds of miles of light rail transit (LRT) that brought people to every nook and cranny of their city, homes, entertainment and shopping.

Of course, cities were cities and within a very short distance, rural was rural.

Sprawl just didn’t exist.

Over time, the evolution of transportation in almost every town, city and metropolis looked a little like this:

  • Pre-1950s: Original core: rail, walking, a few buggies, lots of horse poop
  • Post-war: sprawl. Everyone wanted their piece of suburbia, including the cars that went with it. Buses serviced a few people.
  • 1980s+: sprawl continued, cars continued, roads serviced every nook and cranny. A few brave souls took to walking or cycling, but took their lives in their hands when drivers hunted them down.
  • 2000s+: a return to mega-transit projects that would ease the tension and congestion brought on by the abundance of the car.

Those cities that pre-dated the emergence of the car were fortunate enough to have had a tax base of citizens that lived centrally and who were willing to finance efficient transit systems (more LRTs, subways, trains) as opposed to roads.

Of course, in North America, there are only a small handful of these cities. The vast majority of cities grew beyond 300,000-400,000 people (a rough critical mass needed to support efficient transportation infrastructure) only in the latter half of the 20th century.

This resulted in buses being pitched by manufacturers like GM as the only effective way to reach out to the growing numbers of suburban commuters.

And even though buses theoretically carry more people, more people don’t use them.

All buses do is choke off the arteries, making it harder for everyone to complete their morning or evening commute.

Politics also became more fractured as a result of sprawl. More and more representatives were from suburban or rural areas, resulting in tension between the best options for downtown areas as opposed to what was good for suburbanites.

To summarize, sprawl is the cancer of all development and living in North America, and cars are simply the excessive white blood cells causing leukemia.

This situation has resulted in demands for intensification and a return to consolidating population along with services. The result is that everything becomes more efficient as the same level of service gets delivered over a smaller area, resulting in lower cost per capita.

Getting back to transit …

Designing ‘rapid’ transit systems that basically endorse and support sprawl is a step backwards from the evolution of intensification.

Spending billions on connecting disconnected neighbourhoods is an inefficient process and also fails to recognize that small neighbourhoods should be treated more like hubs and communities as opposed to spokes to a hub.

The funding formula is also severely flawed. Provincial and federal governments pay out money based on the volume of buses and the number of miles they drive every day. Municipal transit commissions no longer count ridership. They simply ‘guesstimate’ usage based on the formula above so that they can maximize funds received.

Hence, the ’empty bus syndrome’, where taxpayers continue to marvel and wonder at the vast parade of empty buses driving around town at all hours. Except when people actually need them.

For those who know and who read this blog, you’ll know that my answer to the problem is to encourage the development of ‘digital destinations’ and expand the flow of binary code as opposed to two-way traffic.

Reaching back to the previous point, I also argue that the more we encourage ‘local’ development as opposed to visiting a ‘core’ area day in, day out, the more we’ll have independent hubs of economic activity.

But that’s not ‘sexy’ enough for politicians, is it?

Everyone talks about ‘shovels in roads’, an expression that makes me cringe because I know that the only people who are benefitting from this nonsense are the overpaid consultants and construction contractors. Many of whom happen to be good friends of the politicians.

For more on overspending on infrastructure projects, check this out.

And finally, there’s technology. Supporters of bus transit argue that diesel and inefficient use of major routes is the way forward, but they neglect the emergence of continuous-use, on-demand transportation opportunities presented by technology companies.

Yes, I understand that autonomous vehicles will not replace cars, but if politicians organize regulations in a way that encourage multi-person autonomous vehicle use (ie. HOV lanes, HOV credits), then we will significantly reduce the cars on the road.

Category: infrastructure, transit