Traffic Guesstimates v. Lively Cityscapes: Toronto’s Choice

Does this sound familiar?

This project would speed the trips of a few rush-hour drivers by a few minutes. On the other hand, the highway would run through a new waterfront park, scar a neighbourhood and eat up valuable land…

Aside from the words “highway” and “new,” these sentences could describe the Wellington Street Extension, but I’ve taken them from Alex Bozikovic’s article about the Gardiner Expressway in this weekend’s Globe and Mail (May 16 2015). Toronto, having worked hard to imagine how to take down this infamous waterfront highway — best known as an eyesore and rush-hour parking lot — now seems poised to rebuild it instead.

Toronto’s size and exceptional traffic congestion issues mean we can’t compare the Gardiner’s history and future too closely to the proposed extension of Wellington Street here in Kingston. There are parallels, though. For example, attitudes that privilege the car in urban planning irritate the article’s author as much as they frustrate opponents of the WSE.

So far the Gardiner East debate has been almost entirely about congestion. Yet how many people drive it? Just 5,200 cars per hour during morning rush hour, according to city figures. It’s a vanishingly small number, just 3 per cent of rush-hour commuters into downtown Toronto.

Tellingly, when (Toronto mayor) Mr. Tory spoke out for the so-called “hybrid” option – which involves essentially rebuilding the Gardiner East – he didn’t mention those piddling figures. He cited the economic cost of congestion in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area as “billions each year,” perhaps alluding to a study of the entire region of six million people in 2006. “No matter how much transit we get built … we are still going to have people driving around in cars and trucks,” he said recently.

That is true. But nobody can say for sure what traffic in 20 years will look like, and whatever happens here – for 3 per cent of downtown commuters – will not meaningfully reduce congestion. Only new transit will. But the mayor wasn’t really making an argument; he was making a gesture of solidarity to drivers who feel besieged in a city where the roads keep filling up, to their frustration, with more and more people.

Here are some more excerpts from the article that apply to our own situation here in Kingston (I’ve added the emphasis).

The world cities that Toronto most wants to emulate are making it harder, not easier, to drive into downtown: London with congestion pricing; New York with pedestrianized streets and bike infrastructure. Why? Because the more roads you build, the more traffic you get, and the alternative, a more walkable, safer and more beautiful streetscape, pays financial and social dividends for everyone. Think of the best and most prosperous cities you have seen. Are they built around expressways? As the Danish planner Jan Gehl puts it, cities are for people, not cars.

On the central waterfront, the public agency Waterfront Toronto is successfully building a lively, pedestrian-friendly cityscape… That is creating value, not the productivity guesstimates of traffic studies but real money. Major employers know that their workforce increasingly cares about urban amenities, not parking and car access.

“People are focused on all the assumptions about cars and travel time,” says (planner and urban designer Ken) Greenberg. But traffic is a small consideration here. This is about what kind of city were building.

Just because Kingston is a smaller city doesn’t mean it has to have smaller ideas. Let’s not let cars drive our plans.

— Anne Lougheed

Transportation Master Plan back to the Drawing Board

Tuesday evening, the City’s Environment, Infrastructure and Transportation Policies committee (EITP) was faced once again with the Transportation Master Plan update which, after some hours of public input and committee discussion at the EITP April meeting,  had been deferred to their May meeting.

The committee’s second stab at the report began with a brief introduction from Director of Engineering Mark van Buren. He stated that at the public meeting on the KTMP update (held April 14), the comments from the public and questions from councillors mostly fell into four categories:

  1. the needs justification for the WSE and its potential environmental impacts (including cultural, social, etc.),
  2. the modelling done for the TMP,
  3. the mode share targets and the cost/benefit numbers for transit, and
  4. the financial assessments, such as the apparent underfunding of active transportation.

Van Buren also said that staff is willing to treat the TMP update as a draft and make revisions to it, then bring it back to EITP in a few months. Ultimately, the committee voted to defer the report to September. Jim Keech (Utilities) said that there will likely be an information report brought to EITP in June, and the committee can make sure at that time that staff aren’t overlooking any desired changes.

Committee members had a lot to say after Van Buren proposed that the report be treated as a draft. Richard Allen was concerned that the delay might affect the timing of the work on the Active Transportation Master Plan, and was assured that it wouldn’t. Rob Hutchison brought up the population projections and his suspicions that Kingston may be overbuilding for an aging and declining population (predicted to peak in the 2030’s). He also wondered what the poor ‘level of service’ (congestion) measurement means in terms of time: does it represent a two or three minutes delay? Is that worth spending millions?

Peter Stroud remarked that Van Buren’s list of four topics is a good start but is not exhaustive list; Stroud has other concerns too. Staff responded that they had been taking notes throughout the discussion, and would welcome emails about specific items from committee members.

Jim Neill asked staff about the classification of some roads in the area of the proposed WSE. Is Montreal St. South of Railway an arterial or a collector? What about Rideau St.? If roads are functioning as one type but labelled as another, does that affect the needs justification for the WSE? (Montreal St. is arterial from the 401 to Railway St. and collector from Railway to Brock: Rideau St. is deemed a local road from River St. to Barrack St., and arterial between Railway and River).

Jeff McLaren, though not a member of the committee, was in attendance and permitted to ask questions. He wondered if screen-lines were the only justification for the environmental assessment for the WSE, and if raising the acceptable level of congestion (LOS>1) would still trigger a recommendation for a new road. Might it encourage commuters to favour other modes of transportation? The consultant’s response was that LOS greater than 1 represents gridlock, which would affect many other roads in the area. Building a road is recommended after all other methods of reducing congestion (demand management, transit etc.) are considered. Even if more people will be taking transit, the population will be larger, so the transit mode share may stay the same or even go down. As Kingston grows, she said, we will need new roads.

Regarding the proposed targets for active transportation and transit use, Van Buren stated that there are two important words in the report: ‘aggressive’ and ‘realistic.’ He maintained that the targets are both. He reiterated that other means of reducing congestion had been looked at before considering new road infrastructure. Sheila Kidd (Director of Transportation) pointed out that a functioning road network is needed for transit too.

I think we can consider the outcome of this meeting another step in the right direction. Staff seem to have been listening to councillors and the public, and have promised to work with the consultants that wrote the KTMP update to make changes to that report. The councillors who oppose the WSE are determined to come at the issue from every angle they can find. And we have a little more time to do whatever we can do.

— Anne Lougheed

Digging Dandelions

You know how if you pull a dandelion, even if you gouge a huge hole in your lawn, you never get the end of the root, and it’s always down there eager to grow again? Sometimes at Council tonight I felt like that’s what we are facing with the WSE — that there is no way to be rid of it. A consistent majority of Council is dedicated to eradicating it from city plans. They hear the public opposition to the road loud and clear and are trying to act on it. But it seems exceedingly difficult to get to the bottom of what procedural steps must be taken to get the WSE off the books. At one point tonight the Director of Engineering and the Director of Planning gave opposite answers about whether an Environmental Assessment (EA) update was necessary to cancel the WSE. It seems somehow impossible to get the WSE out of the centre of our attention, even in the “secondary plan” which does seem like a better tool than an EA. The fact remains that the Engineering Department has identified a traffic “problem” — one they admit is very marginal — and so even the secondary plan will have to be centred, it seems, around “solving” that “problem” even if it does address other social, environmental, and economic issues as well.

But I’ve buried the lead: Council tonight voted to proceed with a “secondary planning” process for the Old Industrial Lands (west of Montreal, south of Counter) and the Inner Harbour, but amended the motion to avoid implementing the staff’s other recommendation of an Environmental Assessment update for the Wellington Street Extension. Council also asked staff to bring the terms for a Request for Proposal (RFP) back to them before hiring a consultant to undertake the planning exercise.

It is good that we now have a land use planning process to evaluate the situation, and an opportunity to imagine the broader future of important parts of downtown. It is good that was have a council working really hard to sort all this stuff out. It is good that we still have an option to undertake an EA update if we decide we need one.

It is frustrating that the process is so long and still uncertain. But here’s hoping that other seeds fall into that dandelion hole, and that it rains so they can sprout and flourish.

— Laura Murray

Canvassing Workshop This Thursday

In this digital world we sometimes forget the power of in-person connection and conversation. Physical presence between people is especially important when we’re talking about political issues that are happening on our doorsteps and in our backyards. WellingtonX is going to start some neighbourhood canvassing and we invite you to join this workshop this Thursday night, May 7, if you might help us out, or have another project you might use canvassing for.

Canvassing Workshop

Sponsored by OPIRG Kingston and the Levana Gender Advocacy Centre

Join us May 7 at 75 Queen Street for a workshop on door-to-door canvassing and talking to people about politics. This open workshop is for community groups, activists, and organizers who want to get better at talking to people about their political ideas, to mobilize neighbourhoods, change public opinion, raise money, and so on.

We will be hosting special guest facilitator Harry Pilford, a professional environmental canvasser with years of experience. He’ll give us tips on how to craft an effective brief message and strike up a rapport with strangers.

The two-hour workshop will also include opportunities to practice your skills in a friendly environment, and get feedback if you wish.

Childcare will be available. RSVPs for childcare are not needed but are welcome. For accessibility, childcare or other needs and questions, please email khatija(at)riseup.net

Moving Slowly in the Right Direction?

This Tuesday (tomorrow!), Council will consider another report they requested from staff on March 3, this one on the “scope of work” required to consider alternatives to the WSE. The report does represent a considerable shift in thinking, in that it acknowledges “a demonstrated need to tie together the elements of land use planning and transportation planning in a manner that appropriately reflects a long-term vision for this area of Kingston.” Staff is proposing a “secondary plan” for the Inner Harbour and Old Industrial Area along with an update to the current EA (Environmental Assessment) for the WSE. This “holistic approach,” they say,

provides an opportunity to receive community input to assist in the development of a long-term vision for the Inner Harbour and Old Industrial Area, which in turn will provide information to help to guide a comprehensive review and evaluation of alternative transportation solutions within the study area. Moreover, this approach will also provide an open, traceable and systematic means of developing sufficient supporting rationale in the event that the WSE is no longer the preferred transportation solution and is removed from all municipal policy and strategic planning documents.

We are happy with the broader approach of this report.

But we do have several concerns and questions.

The first question is, does the Secondary Report have to include the WSE? In the past, with the Doug Fluhrer visioning exercise for example, the public was invited to consider imaginative solutions and visions, but only in the context of the WSE. We wait to be reassured that this Secondary Plan can include visions without the WSE.

Our biggest concern at present is that we do not see why or how these two processes, the visioning and the EA, can or should proceed in an interlocking fashion. We believe that the Secondary Report should happen first, and only then, once alternatives and needs and visions are identified, should the scope and shape of an EA for any proposed action take place. Otherwise, the Secondary Report really may end up secondary — that is, window-dressing rather than real new planning. The report suggests changing the title of the EA: “Removal of reference of “Wellington Street Extension” from the title… will be an important first step to provide public assurance with the process and that all alternative transportation solutions will be given equal consideration.” Retitling sounds like a smokescreen. Let’s decouple the planning study from the EA and only do the EA once we are good and ready and know what we really want to assess.

Please come to Council (again!!!) on Tuesday night to hear what Councillors decide to do with this report. Or write them and tell them what you think!

— Laura Murray