Jennifer Keesmaat is the CEO of the Keesmaat Group, working with corporate and political leaders to advance change in cities around the world. She is the former chief planner of Toronto.
Across the political spectrum, we’ve become comfortable with the idea that the change we need to see in our cities and communities – more affordable housing, more efficient and less costly systems of movement, sustainable infrastructure that will mitigate flooding and other effects of climate change – will always require undiscovered technologies and massive spending. Voters and politicians alike have come to believe that enormous investment and shovels in the ground are the only way to leap forward. That thinking has metastasized and hardened in our politics, our policy-making and in the minds of voters, as expressed by the recent cost-intensive and aggressive proposals in the Ontario budget, and expected in the coming federal election, which will promise bushels more.
But while we pursue that one major technological or spending fix that will radically change our lives for the better forever, traffic congestion, safety, health and social equity in our cities only continue to worsen. And at all levels of government across the country, our leaders – taking that approach as a given – are overlooking opportunities that are immediate and possible. There are easy wins within reach that don’t require new technology, or even new thinking. They don’t necessarily require big spending. But they do require a clear-eyed vision of the future we are seeking to create as a country, a rethinking of how we approach innovation, a recommitment to delivering solid public-policy outcomes through feasible actions, a decoupling of the thinking that new ideas requires huge sums – and the gumption to act now.
Case in point: Toronto’s work to unclog King Street – the artery into the financial heart of Canada – which has recently gone from pilot project to permanent mainstay. I witnessed the problems firsthand, as the city’s chief planner when the project began: high streetcar ridership of upward of 65,000 people a day, frustrated commutes, and choked-off traffic for cars. The city had long been trying to add new neighbourhoods on deindustrialized land along this corridor, but council was stuck on a spin cycle with respect to transit investments, essentially ignoring recommendations from city staff that the denser Toronto gets, the more we’d need new ways to move its residents.
We decided that we needed to cut through it all with a simple idea that was easy to get behind. So we asked a critical question: What transformation is possible that does not require a significant capital expenditure, but relies on adjusting public policy?
Using old-fashioned data collecting, a partnership with the University of Toronto and the positioning of the project as a matter of policy, we built the case for transformation. We found that while cars used 64 per cent of the space on King Street, they moved only 16 per cent of the users. In other words, while the majority of the space was dedicated to cars, three times as many people were moving – often slower than the pace of walking – through the corridor on transit. Upon uncovering this, we relied on the efficiency argument with decision makers. The objective became moving people, rather than focusing on moving cars, and prioritizing a transit solution because of its potential to be efficient, if operated effectively. After detailed analysis, we put forward a series of recommendations that all had one simple factor in common: getting highly inefficient cars carrying a small number of people out of the way of streetcars and their much higher carrying capacity.
The pilot project cost just $1.5-million, and resulted in an increase of 12,000 rides a day, plus travel time and reliability improvements for existing commuters, without significantly affecting vehicle travel time. In the evenings, there has been a 44-per-cent increase in transit riders, and the King streetcar now accommodates 84,000 rides a day. To put this in perspective, 50,150 rides take place every day on the five-stop Sheppard subway line, which has been in operation for more than 15 years and cost more than a billion in today’s dollars. The King Street Pilot is the most cost-effective public transportation project in the city’s history, and it became permanent just last month, just a few years after discussions about it began.
The King Street pilot wasn’t successful because we collected immense reams of data, required massive spending or took advantage of a technological shift. It was successful because we used existing infrastructure to serve a greater good. It involved little more than a vision, a change in public policy and tweaks to transit operations.
There are abundant examples of other simple, immediately implementable solutions to enhance transit capacity from around the world. In Boston, parking lanes are converted to bus lanes during peak periods, significantly cutting down travel times on heavily used bus corridors. Calgary has implemented transit signal priority so that some buses receive extended green lights at certain intersections. This has produced up to 10 minutes in travel-time savings each way. Montreal has transformed movement by relentlessly building an extensive network of safe cycle tracks, allowing cycling to become a genuine transportation option, even in the cold of its winters. An estimated 536,000 Montrealers use their bikes as a method of transportation – just more than 30 per cent of the city’s total population.
This efficiency-first thinking can help cities with other problems, too. Vancouver recently built modular affordable housing quickly and effectively using technologies that have existed for decades, and at a price point significantly lower than housing people in the shelter system. It’s a model that other cities could emulate.
It has become too easy for politicians to stand behind the podium and make big spending announcements for infrastructure and innovations that will not likely materialize in their political lifetime, and frankly, our political process has made it too hard to responsibly achieve dramatic innovation without the pitfalls of administrative bureaucracy and political busybodying. It is too rare for immediate change to happen – not because that change is expensive, but because it requires expending some political capital, taking some risks, and acting with tenacity when roadblocks appear.
Transforming modern cities into livable places is a goal absolutely worth pursuing. But the path of that pursuit has been marred by distraction. We need to fundamentally shift our starting point. Change is within reach: We just need the leadership to pursue it, for real.