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

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Jacqueline Thorpe, Financial Post

Published: Saturday, November 10, 2007

Jacqueline has drunk the cool aid. She drives the QEW and 401 and then writes about the need for more freeways.

I leave Jordan, Ont., for the 100-kilometre trip east to Toronto one recent morning at 7:30 a.m. I pass new subdivisions that ring the west side of Lake Ontario like a giant barnacle. Twenty-five minutes into my drive through the Golden Horseshoe, I run into traffic at Burlington. It never lets up. I slow down, speed up, get cut off, swear at the moron in front of me. I cruise talk radio and resist the urge to check my BlackBerry. My blood just begins to boil amid the sheer tedium and inefficiency of what is for hundreds of thousands of Canadians a typical everyday morning commute.

Two hours and 15 minutes later — at least twice as long as it should have taken me–I arrive at my office in north Toronto a frazzled mess.

A couple of questions occur to me. Why does she expect to be able to average 100kph? And why not park when you hit Burlington? The GO train service along the lakeshore is not only fast (compared to the freeway) it is also frequent and runs all day, not just peak hour peak direction. And why does she think that more freeway capacity will make any difference? Isn’t doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome the definition of madness?

These highways have been steadily widened over the years. The central section of the 401 is a multilane nightmare, and as she notes the privatised 407 really didn’t make things much better, despite its electronic tolls. The “giant barnacles” see to that. The developers would not have put up those subdivisions if it had not been for the freeways. And that land in Southern Ontario, especially the area around the Niagara escarpment was high value farm land. Some of it, like the unique ecosystem of the Oak Ridges Moraine (the watershed north of Toronto) was early identified as being too important to allow for development. But it is happening anyway. And since it doesn’t have access the York Region trunk sewer (which follows Yonge Street from Lake Ontario to Lake Scugog) most of it is on well water and tile field drainage, and thus low density.

This is the future that Kevin Falcon and Gordon Campbell want to bring to the Fraser Valley. This is what they think of when they talk about “sustainable development” – but without the GO trains. This is why we have to speak up – soon – at the process that currently is trying to ignore the environmental impact of the Gateway.

This being the FP, the article is all about how private sector partnerships and how the public sector can be “securitized”. She does mention that the 407 experience “traumatized” Ontario. She just assumes that the reader will either know enough about that or able to look it up. But the impression is that it was an exception, born out of inexperience. Actually, no, P3s have had very mixed results indeed. And “securitization” does not actually provide provide much security either. That was the process that meant banks in the United States could lend far too much money to people who could not afford huge mortgages – with the results we now see. There is a real prospect of a major recession south of the 49th.

And there is no mention of what other ways there might be to deal with the supposed “crisis” in our infrastructure. What other ways there might be to organise ourselves so that we do not need freeways and truck sewers. The word “sustainability” does not appear in this piece – or “peak oil”. Or the need to diversify our economy since it now looks like our biggest customer will not be able to afford the things we sell them. The assumption behind this article is that business as usual and its 100km commutes will continue and all we need is a bit more financial wizardry.

The article does not say why the private sector is better able to build and run projects than governments. On the whole, it seems to me that the imperative to maximize profit does not serve the public very well. The conduct of the war in Iraq is very good business for Halliburton: somehow it does not seem to benefit the people of Iraq or the US very much. The privatisation of British Railways now ensures that the formerly “intolerable” level of public subsidies is now three times higher than it was before it was sold off to the highest bidders (who mostly made out like bandits). The cost in terms just of the death toll of an unprecedented series of train crashes in Britain since privatization should be enough to make us think twice. The private sector consortium that took over the maintenance of part of the London Underground has gone bust, and is now owned by London’s equivalent of the GVRD. In BC, the sale of BC Rail meant that we lost all the fish in a river since CN felt that cutting cost was the only thing they had to be concerned about.

Written by Stephen Rees

November 10, 2007 at 11:07 am