Going To School: A Transit Summit took place on September 28th at York University, and gathered post-secondary representatives, planners, politicians, transit agencies and leading academics to discuss mobility challenges for the Greater Toronto Housing Authority's 300,000+ students, faculty and staff who attend or work at post-secondary institutions. Toronto City Councilor Adam Vaughan collaborated with Sean Hertel Urban Planning Consultant, York University’s City Institute and Spacing Magazine to make Going To School a reality, with financial support from York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies, ATU Local 113 and Bombardier.
In his opening remarks, Roger Keil, Director of the City Institute stated that the Summit was to be a forum for a new perspective on transit and to “break the mold between us and them, providers and users.” Keil encapsulated current attitudes of many transit users who feel disconnected and whose needs (i.e. customer needs) are perceived to be secondary to transit providers in the GTHA.
Adam Vaughan provided the keynote address with some interesting research into the history of post-secondary institution development in the GTHA. The region’s first universities developed in largely rural settings before the second world war in what is now a very urban environment, such as the University of Toronto and OCAD University. As settlements began to expand and surround these institutions, they became part of the urban fabric. The postwar era saw a rapid expansion of Ontario’s post-secondary institutions with new campuses and the emergence of community colleges and a huge investment in infrastructure. This postwar expansion stagnated until the 2000s, when institutions entered their latest phase of change.
School development largely paralleled population increases from the 1950s onward, however, transit has lagged behind this trend. After the subway opened in the 1950s, the region’s ability to connect people to post-secondary institutions expanded. GO Transit complemented this connectivity when it came into existence in 1967. These new transit lines were established in a linear rather than radial pattern, and the trend of campus expansion off this linear grid has increased travel times and placed stress on a system that has not expanded to cope.
Attempts to address connectivity issues are underway. When these new transit lines begin to come on line later this decade, they will connect isolated campuses that have developed off the traditional linear grid. The Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown, Sheppard East and Finch West LRTs will connect U of T Scarborough to U of T’s downtown campus and community colleges (Centennial, Humber, Seneca) that dot the north end of the Toronto. When the subway extension is complete in 2015, York University will be directly connected to the network with two stations serving its Keele Campus. Other transit projects are underway in the regions surrounding Toronto and are similarly centered at academic institutions, such as Kitchener-Waterloo’s LRT which will connect Conestoga College, Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Waterloo.
Faster connections between academic institutions facilitate more collaboration. It is no coincidence that the recent boom in Toronto’s office construction is centered near universities. Businesses have recognized that more and more highly skilled individuals are living in the downtown area, so businesses are now choosing to locate their offices where the talent pool resides.
The Presidents Panel was moderated by CivicAction Chair John Tory and included post-secondary administrators who brought the ideas and initiatives of their institutions to the discussion, with an overall theme of collaboration between universities, colleges, municipalities and transit providers. Several members of the panel mentioned the need for full-cost accounting in regards to transportation (such as dispelling the myth that roads are free when they are paid for through tax revenue) and increasing the connection between short, medium and long-term transportation plans. York’s President, Mamdouh Shoukri, went into detail on the realities facing York’s Keele Campus. With a population of 65,000 students, staff and faculty, the campus operates like a small town and has made great strides in recent years to reduce the number of single-occupant vehicles coming onto campus by two thirds.
Toronto’s new Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, moderated the Transit and Land Use Panel. Keesmaat began the discussion with the question of how we get from what we know we ought to do to what we end up with — the challenges of getting through the planning and political process. BILD President and CEO Brian Tuckey made reference to the building industry's desire to be a key player in transit plans, as transit needs to keep pace with the estimated 40,000 new housing units required for the 100,000 new residents that come into the GTHA every year. With more units now being built in the city of Toronto than in the surrounding regions, the industry can contribute to the benefits of compact mixed-use development. The provinces’ Growth Plan of 2005 created the necessary “tension” in the housing structure to change preferences over time, which is now evident in the downtown condo boom with more individuals choosing to live in urban areas. Christopher Wong, York University Development Corp’s Director of Transportation and Master Planning stated that York’s identification as a mobility hub in the Big Move sets the stage for the campus as part of an emerging transit corridor with population projections of about 300,000 by 2031. York’s Keele Campus currently holds over 90 buildings with 8 million sq. ft. of GFA, with another 15 million sq. ft. of potential new development surrounding the campus. The area around York will be prime real estate for height increases in proximity to the transit stations that will come on line in 2015 and makes it possible for York to become a place of diverse uses to bring 24-hour life to the campus. The connectivity of the subway extension shifts the perception of York as peripheral to being more central in the GTHA, according to Sean Hertel.
The third panel, Transit Operators, was moderated by Toronto Star Urban Affairs columnist Royson James and included TTC Chair Karen Stintz and GO Transit CEO Gary McNeil. Stintz discussed city council talks on charging developers a dedicated transit fee as they benefit tremendously from public investments in infrastructure through increased land values, especially in regards to downtown condo development. McNeil followed with an acknowledgement of the importance of the development industry's contribution to economic development.
Metrolinx VP of Policy, Planning and Innovation Leslie Woo moderated the final panel, Academics. Pierre Filion, the University of Waterloo’s Associate Director of Graduate Planning Studies contrasted the integration of diverse downtown areas as areas of specialization with easy access to large pools of talent and clients with suburban power centres and strip malls offering all the same services. This condition exists because suburbs operate as separate markets due to lack of integration and connectivity in contrast to downtowns that are better connected and can take advantage of specialization. Developers are beginning to recognize this, evident in the downtown Toronto’s office and residential construction boom.
Developers are poised to take advantage of the transit expansion underway in the GTHA as land values increase and more land will become viable to develop. Partnerships with municipalities, transit providers and post-secondary institutions will provide access to housing and education to wider groups when coupled with sound land use, transportation and housing policies. We can already see the City relaxing zoning restrictions in areas of Toronto that are already or will be located in the coming decade near transit lines. The more transit that gets built, the greater development potential opens up in areas designated for intensification. The fact of the matter is that it benefits the bottom line for the development industry to be a partner in transit expansion just as municipalities and transit on developers to provide nearby markets for sustainable transit.
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