Monday, May 17, 2010

An Infinite Corridor, Reinventing the Automobile, and the Resilient City

Two weeks ago, as I galloped down MIT's Infinite Corridor, I spotted a poster advertising the speech of Ray LaHood, US Secretary of Transportation, as part of the Transportation@ MIT lecture series. At MIT, 230 faculty are working on progressive transport initiatives, drawn from the School of Engineering, the School of Architecture and Planning, and the Sloan School of Management. Their united objective? To mitigate the greenhouse gases from transport, and build sustainable, livable cities through developing high-quality transit infrastructure, such as the networked electric car, for efficient urban mobility using advances in information technology.

Transportation is responsible for 33% of emissions, and by 2020, there will be 8 billion people driving 1.1 billion cars. In Ontario, transportation is the largest and fastest-growing source of climate-change. In a networked society, it does not pay for Ontario's government, and Metrolinx, to be intellectually isolationist with $50 billion for Ontario's Big Move on the table, doled out over 25 years. Part of MIT's mandate is to be of public service, and ensure that their research and design is to be openly available for access by international transit initiatives, while maintaining control of their intellectual property through patents. Toronto is not the only city with the expansionist woes, and yet we live in a bubble of inadequate funding, discourse and debate, and our political representatives are ignoring some of the finest minds of our generation discussing one of the most pressing issues environmentally - the rising greenhouse gas emissions of transport in relation to urban intensification.

Ontario should be using principles developed at MIT to enable mega cities, like Toronto, to become resilient cities - cities which can absorb population growth, decrease fossil fuel consumption, and adapt quickly to crisis and emergency. Boston, Mexico City, Los Angeles, and what is jokingly referred to as the "People's Republic of Cambridge", are incorporating these MIT initiatives, and Toronto could use these cities as reference points. Instead, Metrolinx is far from incorporating the input from universities, international or local, in the design of this transit corridor in any meaningful capacity - any input from their own, and outside, urban planning consultants has been undermined by Premier McGuinty's mandate to leave a personal legacy, and refute his critic's accusations that he is slow to make decisions.

It is fair to say that Premier McGuinty, the Liberal Party, and Metrolinx's, area of expertise is not in infrastructure projects, or in environmental policy, given the communities' unanimous opposition to the diesel driven transit principles evidenced in the planning of first component of the Big Move - the Georgetown corridor, and the Air Rail Link. The need to honour the 1999 deal with SNC-Lavalin has trumped the intelligent planning of the GSSE and Air Rail Link, and there is a growing disconnect between the will of communities, progressive urban planning principles, and the allocation of funds for transit, because of the safeguarding of this privileged Air Rail Link contract above electric transit initiatives.

As Ontario debates the future of transit policy in the stingiest of times, we are moving further and further away from the idea of resilient cities as realized through integrated, clean transit design, and our political will, civic pride, and economy have become exponentially fractured. Toronto residents will be paying for this low level of political discourse for a long time as we are already bearing the brunt of the air pollution correlated to population growth. This critical discontent is growing - witness the campaign for Transit City and its posters and subway announcements. Mayor Miller has taken off his gloves as he rails against the $4 billion funding delay announced by the provincial government for the LRT. In one corner is Premier McGuinty, and Metrolinx, delaying budgets for the Big Move, honouring a retroactive contract for the Air Rail Link, and making facile and backward decisions for a massive infrastructure project, and in the other, is Mayor Miller, fighting for what he considers to be his legacy- the 120 km of light rail transit to interconnect downtown neighbourhoods.

Transit guru Steve Munro has a brilliant entry regarding these these cuts on his blog 'Transit Village' at - be sure to read the particularly juicy response by transit specialist and engineer, Greg Gormick, at The revised Transit City plan will see lines cut by a total of 22.5 kilometres and 24 fewer stations than the original plan announced by the province in 2008. Curiously, the funding for all controversial, dirty diesel infrastructure - the Air Rail Link and Georgetown- was left intact, while the Eglinton LRT funding was cut, as it enabled access to the airport. This is viewed by many transit analysts as a calculated decision on the part of the provincial government to protect the Air Rail Link contract, and nip conflict of municipal and provincial transit interests in the bud.

MIT is reinventing the automobile as an electric, personal mobility device, and Boston is incorporating MIT's transit policies to ensure that their city is walkable, has complete streets to include bicycles, and is adequately served by a light rail transit system to its airport and throughout its greater region. Meanwhile, in Toronto, Metrolinx is trying to run 140 diesel trains daily to the airport, building the equivalent of a polluting sixteen lane highway through twelve inner city neighbourhoods, and cutting funding for electric, light rail transit corridors. My visit to MIT confirmed that the Big Move will make Ontario the laughing stock of urban planners and transit specialists as a case study for not only destructive urban planning, but the dysfunctional relationship between arm's length agencies, governmental policy, and civic goodwill. I thought we were just sixty years behind, but no, given the depth and scope of research at MIT, Metrolinx is positively prehistoric in its choice of fossil fuel based infrastructure and urban planning initiatives, as currently advised by Premier McGuinty.

When I traveled to the airport, I watched Boston's airport LRT quietly pass by a playing field, with no disruption at all to the baseball game, and as I boarded my plane, I heard an announcement boasting that the equivalent of 11 million miles in tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions have been alleviated by Boston's airport LRT and interconnecting electric buses. I felt a pang that my neighbourhood parks, MacGregor and Sorauren, will not be served by my provincial government equally, and concern that I will be paying significantly higher taxes for transit that will damage my health and my community. The poignancy of this recollection will never leave me. The time for global collaboration on transit policy is now, and Ontario must be part of this networking, discourse, and implementation. Otherwise, we are going to be left in the dust, far behind the Americans.

Video on Ray LaHood Transportation Lecture at
MIT Press, 'Reinventing the Automobile' at
Facts on Canadian Transport Emissions at Pembina Institute at and Steve Monro, 'Transit Village' article, at
Greg Gormick Response to Steve Munro's article at