Saturday, February 25, 2012

Subways and suburbs

When I read comments posted by defenders of the suburban dream, I usually find some variant on space mentioned. A large back yard, a big house, a quiet street, room to breathe: these define the allure of the suburban experience. And real estate developers have used these talking points to sell suburban tracts since before the explosion of suburbia and the attendant highway building that followed the Second World War.

Subway construction requires dense development and predictable travel patterns. Subways require tens of thousands of workers leaving small houses or apartments, or parking their cars at suburban parking centers, and taking the trains to work in dense commercial or industrial centers. If subways require density, and suburbs require open space, then the suburbs, by their very nature, should not have a subway, right?

Well, at least according to Rob Ford, wrong. I do not know whether or not Mayor Ford wants to build a subway just to keep transit out of the way of private cars, or whether he agrees with Joe Warmington, the Sun columnist who seem to think that building subways to Scarboro shows we consder the people who live there important. Mr. Ford's stated position holds that we can build a subway with private money, and that if the city builds the line, the dense development will magically appear. I have one question for the people who believe this: why do you want dense development appear in a place so many people found attractive precisely because of its open space?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Darwin day

Alternet reports that today, Sunday Feruary 12 marks the 203rd birthday of Charles Darwin and asks how we plan to celebrate. I gave some thought to Charles Darwin and the nature of evolution as a learning system. In a talk at Knowledge Technologies in 2002, Uche Ogbuji said humans have as much information in our brains as we have in our DNA. Keeping knowledge in our brains gives us an advantage, because for DNA to update itself with new information, the individual organism has to reproduce and die. I took this knowledge with me into First Nations justice work, and I had the opportunity to learn from First Nations people about the intimate connections between all things in the world. As they taught me, I remembered the world of abstract language-based knowledge, and I took another tentative step forward. I came to understand that the knowledge encoded into our DNA does not simply reflect us: it also reflects our environment. No one species evolves in isolation, rather and entire ecosystem evolves, moving forward and producing information about how to fit together. Our DNA and the living processes that refine it do not produce individuals or even individual species: they produce ecosystems.

What I encountered as the bleeding edge of European science, the intersection between cognitive theory and evolution, the First Nations people I worked with understood as traditions they had loved and reverenced from time immemorial. So on the 203rd anniversary of Charles Darwin, I conclude thus: like Columbus, Darwin sailed to far places and brought back information his contemporaries and successors used both for good and for ill. But can we truly call either man a discoverer for walking on ground lightly trod by others for thousands of years?

Friday, February 10, 2012


I usually agree with Royson James, the Toronto Star urban affairs columnist, but I think his column on subways versus surface light rail transit has a logical flaw. He writes that he, unlike Rob Ford, will agree to pay for the subways that mayor wants Toronto to build. He indicates that Mayor Ford thinks the public will not agree to pay for the subways.

I agree with that part. It seems to me that Mr. Ford and his supporters have the approach to subway building that many teenagers have to household budgets: they want subways the way a fifteen year old wants the cool new cell phone. The parents have a credit card, so why can't they have it now? Mr. Royson, by contrast, takes an adult approach: if everyone gets a new phone, we can't afford a sixty inch plasma TV this year, so which do we want most? That puts him well ahead of the simplistic argument that we should have subways simply because people want them, regardless of expense, but I would argue he doesn't go far enough. Unlike families, cities operate in an environment of existential competition. If your son doesn't like his phone or the TV or the car, he can't usually go to live with the family next door. But cities do have to attract, and keep, businesses and the talented work force businesses require. Those businesses and people have alternatives, so the city has to provide good facilities at an acceptable cost. If a city fails at that task, its residents can face a bleak economic decline.

A city council contemplating a major capital investment such as a subway line needs to do more than simply agree to pay for it. They also have to do the work of planning, to make sure the money they spend buys services that enough people will use to justify the expense. Otherwise, the city tax base ends up saddled with debts for unused infrastructure, which means residents and businesses pay more taxes for the services they do use. This in turn creates an incentive for businesses and workers to locate elsewhere, leaving a declining commercial and residential base to carry the debt. This explains why, in urban transportation as most other things, those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Against this hard economic logic, claiming the people want subways, or even that current Toronto residents will agree to pay taxes in order to get subways simply does not suffice.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Bicycle trails

(via I Bike TO) This evening, the civil servants charged with planning bicycle transportation will hold an open house at Northern District Library. They plan to present a proposal to fill the gaps in the city's bicycle network with trails. In many respects, I welcome this proposal. I have just a few questions: the civil servants and politicians charged with designing these facilities describe them with the word "multi-use". Does the city plan to provide genuine multi-use trails with a clearly delineated bicycle component,  or will they simply go with a "shared" facility, which throws the burden of keeping traffic separated on the users, and which often creates conflict and even endangers users. When I go to the open house this evening, I have no doubt I will find out.

A trail defined as multi-use mixes pedestrians and cyclists. The West Toronto rail path, one of the best examples of such a trail, actually functions as more of a linear park than a simple trail; it offers benches and grassy areas, and the cyclists passing by mingle with the dog walkers, joggers, and children playing. The civility that distinguishes Toronto at its best often makes this mix work, but does not eliminate the inherent problem with the design. Bicycles travel too fast to mix safely with pedestrians. An cyclist can easily move about three times as fast as the average pedestrian; the average urban motorist only moves about twice as fast as a cyclist. As events last summer tragically proved, collisions between cyclists and pedestrians can have tragic results.

The designers of the Martin Goodman Trail on the waterfront tried to solve this problem by dividing parts of the trail into pedestrian and bicycle pathways. This works quite well on some parts of the trail, less well on others. How well this separation works depends on both the effectiveness of trail marks and signs, and on the willingness of trail users to cooperate. Ideally, a trail divided for bicycle and pedestrian use would separate the paths in much the same way as road designs separate pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Such a design would reflect sound engineering principles, by making the safe choices the easiest and most obvious, but would also affirm the status of bicycle paths, routes and lanes as transportation corridors, like roads and subway lines, rather than recreational facilities. Cyclists ride to get to destinations. We have places to get to, and like other users of the city transportation networks, we have time pressures and deadlines to meet. If the bicycle facilities the city provides do not permit us to ride fast enough in safety. we can always use the roads, but that eliminates the safety advantages the city has attempted to provide by building the trails.