Skip to main content

Lee Malleau, chief executive officer of the Vancouver Economic Development Commission.

When Vancouver wants to impress potential investors, an obvious place to start is Canada's Pacific Gateway. This vast transportation project – whose partners include Port Metro Vancouver, the federal and provincial governments, and Canadian National Railway Co. – is spending more than $22-billion to improve port, rail, road and air infrastructure. Its goal is to make B.C. the continent's main transport hub for trade with Asia.

Vancouver is reaping the benefits, says Lee Malleau, chief executive officer of the Vancouver Economic Development Commission. Partnering with other levels of government has created one of the best transportation infrastructures in North America, she says.

City leaders know how crucial such infrastructure is to quality of life. Since it opened in late 2009, the Canada Line rapid-transit link between downtown and Vancouver International Airport has helped reduce traffic congestion. Then there's Vancouver's growing network of bike lanes. "They've already proven to be very effective in taking cars off the road," Ms. Malleau says.

As part of its 2009 Worldwide Quality of Living Survey, consulting firm Mercer ranked the world's top 50 cities for infrastructure by comparing their electricity and water availability, telephone and postal service, public transportation, traffic congestion and airports. Vancouver – No. 4 in overall quality of life – tied for sixth place, while Singapore, Munich and Copenhagen took the top three spots. Montreal and Toronto tied with other cities for No. 15 and No. 18, respectively.

Cities can't afford to ignore such surveys. "There's no question that companies are increasingly looking at infrastructure and technology when they're making decisions about where to locate," says John Andrew, an adjunct assistant professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning and the School of Business at Queen's University.

It's part of the race for highly talented workers, who can live anywhere they want, Dr. Andrew explains. "If a company needs to attract well-educated, skilled employees, they have to pay attention to those factors that make one city more livable and more attractive than another city."

Canadian cities may fare well in some global rankings, but they've fallen far behind on infrastructure spending. In 2007, a Federation of Canadian Municipalities report put the country's municipal infrastructure deficit at $123-billion. Montreal, whose crumbling bridges and overpasses have left residents afraid to drive, vividly illustrates the problem.

More infrastructure isn't necessarily better, warns Kevin Stolarick, research director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. But if cities are wise to shun silver-bullet projects like Detroit's ill-fated Renaissance Center, Dr. Stolarick says, they'll suffer if their transportation, utilities and communications infrastructure doesn't meet a minimum standard. "It becomes a kind of table stakes," he notes.

For Dr. Stolarick, strong infrastructure is about the swift movement of people, products and ideas. Citing London and New York, he also stresses the importance of long-term planning. "They're still living on investments that were made in the very early 20th century in terms of infrastructure and transit."

Public transit is arguably the most influential piece of physical infrastructure when a business is choosing a location. David Wolfe, professor of political science at the University of Toronto Mississauga and co-director of the Program on Globalization and Regional Innovation Systems (PROGRIS) at the Munk School for Global Affairs, laments what he calls 20 or 30 years of systematic underinvestment in the Toronto transit system.

"You've got all these great potential scale economies in the Toronto region, but it's being strangled by the weakness of the transportation infrastructure," Dr. Wolfe says. A 2006 Transport Canada study found that congestion in Canada's nine biggest urban areas cost as much as $3.7-billion annually, in 2002 dollars.

From subways to bike lanes, cities must make alternative modes of transportation part of their infrastructure mix. Dr. Wolfe praises Copenhagen, whose downtown core has a network of car-free streets; meanwhile, London, Singapore and Stockholm have helped reduce congestion by bringing in downtown vehicle tolls.

Even if their delivery systems need upgrading, most Canadian cities have good energy and water infrastructure. Providing a solution to rising energy costs is one way to stand out. For example, Hamilton, Ont., offers tax incentives for companies to construct LEED-certified buildings, which can cut operating costs by 75 per cent.

"A program like that really improves their competitiveness," says Neil Everson, Hamilton's director of economic development.

When it comes to information and communications technology, Canada lags Asian countries such as South Korea, where wireless broadband penetration is almost 90 per cent. Canadian cities needn't fret about matching that statistic, but businesses expect reliable and uninterrupted service. "There's little tolerance for anything other than 100 per cent availability," says Kirsten Tisdale, partner and B.C. advisory services leader at the Vancouver office of Ernst & Young.

Likewise, businesses and residents prize a civic infrastructure built for speed. "What they really care about is time," Dr. Stolarick says. "It's not really distance – it's how long it takes them to do something."

The first of a six-part weekly series exploring the drivers – and the art and science – of creating smarter cities.