Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for August 30th, 2009

“Wake up and smell the exhaust”

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That exhortation comes from Christopher Hume writing in the Toronto Star – about a month ago. Devon Rowcliffe and Jim Harris picked it up on facebook today – and I thank both of them since I missed it when it came out. While he is talking to the GTA he could equally be talking to the GVRD

…we are rooted in the mindset of the 1970s, blissfully unaware that a new reality has dawned.

Let’s look instead to cities that lead, cities that are reinventing themselves as places where people live because they want to not because they must, places that are remaking themselves in the image of a human being, not a car, places that offer quality of life not just low taxes.

Cities as disparate as New York, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and now Sydney, Australia, are moving to reclaim their public realm for people. Historic squares that were turned into parking lots in the years after World War II are now being returned to pedestrians. Café life in Copenhagen, for instance, which didn’t exist 40 years ago, now flourishes. And, yes, they know what winter is.

Whole precincts in these communities and others have been set aside as pedestrian zones. And local merchants notwithstanding, business prospers in these designated areas.

Vancouver is, of course, the city that cancelled its Sundays only closure of Commercial Drive – becuase the local merchants complained of reduced takings.

It doesn’t help that we have fallen 25 years behind the rest of the world in public transit, which alone has seriously harmed the GTA’s ability to keep pace. Now we are desperately trying to catch up, but many fear the (high-speed) train has already left the station.

How ironic that as we become more like the U.S., the U.S. wants to become more like us.

Indeed I heard a clip on the radio today of Bill Clinton, speaking to a rather less than sold out house at the CNE, about how great Toronto is. Perhaps this is the problem – for them and us. Americans keep coming here and telling us we are doing better than they are – but that is not much of a test.

Hume talks about becoming more competitive internationally. I think we should do it even if we don’t attract any more visitors or footloose investors. We should do it because we care about our own well being, our own environment – and that of the world we inhabit. Indeed this push for economic growth is what is driving us to extinction. Building a freeway that will put an end to Burns Bog – paving over Delta farmland to store empty containers – increasing the number of single occupant vehicle commuters along the Fraser Valley and (probably) throwing billions at a tube to UBC when most of the region is starved for decent transit all seem to speak of  “the mindset of the 1970s” – before the first oil scare of course.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 30, 2009 at 5:37 pm

Posted in transit, Transportation, Urban Planning

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