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lisa rochon: cityspace

Toronto, you've grown old and rigid long before your time. Other cities are racing to provide new ways for people to move fluidly through them. Meanwhile, Toronto suffers from a kind of urban arthritis: Its roads and highways are clogged; its sidewalks are corroded and narrow, and it lacks enough subway lines and dedicated bike lanes.

The astounding lack of a national transportation strategy in Canada means that while other cities around the world become easier to penetrate on foot or by high-speed transit, Toronto, like Calgary, is becoming increasingly gridlocked. Beauty in a city has as much to do with ease of transportation as it does with the aesthetics of a particular building. The truth is that the postwar road is dead. We need to unpark our brains, so we can reclaim the thousands of kilometres of roads criss-crossing our cities and convert them from economic dead zones to places designed to attract people and revenue.

Consider that Hong Kong has consistently invested an amount equal to 1 per cent of the country's gross domestic product in that city's public transit over the last 20 years. Singapore, too, has invested heavily. Despite a multibillion-dollar price tag, the City of London remains firmly committed to building subways and regional rail lines, public-private partnerships that provide new linkages from north to south and east to west allowing passengers to travel fluidly from Heathrow to Canary Wharf in about 15 minutes.

Along with the province's contributions, Toronto's public transit has only tasted bits and pieces from the federal slop pail: $300-million toward the Spadina subway expansion, another $300-million toward a previous vision of the Sheppard Avenue East Light Rail Transit line, though that funding has been frozen since Toronto Mayor Rob Ford cancelled the Transit City plan earlier this year. A trip through the city that takes 20 minutes by car takes three times that long by a disheartening and exhausting relay of streetcar, bus, subway and bus.

Canada has enjoyed economic good times over the last decade, but still there's been an astounding blindness to the need to invest urgently in public transit. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's fresh majority could help push forward a national transportation plan. According to the City of Toronto's Economic Development and Culture Division, Toronto's share of Canada's annual GDP is roughly $144-billion. One per cent of that contribution would amount to $1.4-billion, which each year could be put toward new subway lines and safer, more energy-efficient subway cars and buses.

Imagine if, like Singapore or Hong Kong, Toronto had attracted billions of dollars to buoy its subway and streetcar system over the last two decades. Instead of having among the longest commute times in North America, we could enjoy the shortest. Fewer cars on the road would mean cleaner air. Our carbon footprint would be dramatically reduced.

That's not an expenditure, it's an investment in people and the planet.

There's also comeuppance money for mass transit to be found in the $1.7-billion in bailout loans that Chrysler Group repaid to the governments of Canada and Ontario earlier this week. The estimated 20 per cent in interest charged by the Canadian government for the bailout could go a long way toward financing at least one of the many badly needed subway lines in Toronto.

In Toronto, the average amount spent on public transit annually (by governments and from fare revenue) is about $338 per capita. New York spends twice that. London, three times. Is it any wonder that 70 per cent of Torontonians choose to drive to work?

Dedicated funding of public transportation is critical. Innovative New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan calls roads the public space that exists between buildings. Originally, they were exclusively designed for cars. That's a single-use luxury no metropolis can afford. Now they need to be reinvented with café tables, enormous planted pots that double as safety bollards and, naturally, cycling lanes.

New York's fresh view of roads is exactly why a difficult intersection at Madison Square, at the intersection of Broadway, Fifth Avenue and 23rd St., was converted into a joyous public plaza with street furniture and bicycle lanes. And it's why the overly crowded, traffic-snarled Broadway was split down the middle so that much more space could be devoted along its seven-block stretch to pedestrian leisure space.

Forty million people visited Times Square last year. Because of the upgrades to the public space, retail rents are increasing, and luxury stores are poised to start moving in. This week, the New York Post named the transformation of Broadway into a softer, more people-friendly place as the reason behind "footfall and global exposure."

Toronto's transportation planners need to junk their conventional thinking and go big, go gutsy or go home to Brantford. One of my favourite Cinderella stories of urban transformation has taken place in Seoul, South Korea. The six-lane Cheonggye Overpass was built, during the 1970s, to pave over an increasingly noxious river. But, as in any other city whose heart was pierced postwar by a massive speedway for cars, the elevated highway created pollution, congestion and a mess of makeshift retailers at its edges. Elevated expressways, in Toronto, NYC or Seoul, are economic dead zones, which is why serious investors stayed away from the Cheonggye.

In 2001, Lee Myung-bak was elected mayor of Seoul on a campaign to demolish the freeway and make the river into the sinewy spine of a lush new landscape. In 2005, that dream became reality. A bus rapid-transit line, designed to absorb the traffic that once clogged the freeway, was completed at the same time that the freeway was closed.

Property values next to the river landscape increased by 300 per cent.

The urban-heat-island effect in the area has been dramatically reduced, since 160,000 cars no longer travel along the traffic artery every day. Since being reinvented, the recreational public space known as the Cheonggyecheon (which means "clear stream creek") attracts several million visitors to its green oasis every year.

Lee is remarkable for his ability to see roads as non-productive barriers to a city's public life. Talk about a politician with remarkable urban intuition. The freeway-to-river transformation has triggered a domino effect in that city, and beyond. Another elevated freeway in Seoul has now been replaced with a surface boulevard, while a 16-lane road has recently been cut in half to make room for a massive public plaza.

Urban visionaries are a scarce commodity in Canada. Not so elsewhere, where leaders are promoted, not punished, for defending the city and the need for urban fluidity above and below ground. Lee defended a gutsy vision for Seoul. Now he's the President of Korea.