The University of Waterloo Planning Alumni of Toronto hold an annual dinner, one of the premier planning events in the city. On November 14 at the Royal York Hotel, movers and shakers from across the planning and development industry attended the 23rd annual edition. This year, the keynote address was given by Taras Grescoe, writer and author of the book Straphanger, on the importance of getting public transit right.

Building and planning professionals eat and listen in the Canadian Room at the Royal York. Photo by Craig White.

The University of Waterloo's Toronto Planning Dinner helps support the university's Planner-in-Residence Program, as well as entrance scholarships to the University of Waterloo's planning program. Its list of friends and corporate sponsors is a veritable 'who's who' of the industry. This year's main sponsors were:

In addition, there were several dozen organizations that helped sponsor the night's event, that included (but was not limited to) Aird & Berlis LLP, the City of Toronto, MMM Group Limited, planningAlliance, and the Region of York. Together, approximately 900 individuals shared drinks and conversation before sitting down to a full course meal, and a remarkable keynote speech.

Taras Grescoe delivers the keynote speech to the almost 900 professionals in attendance. Photo by Craig White.

Taras Grescoe began his speech, Toronto's Future Depends on Transit, by highlighting the role of the pedestrian in making public transit work. A straphanger, he said, is a term used in London and New York to describe a person who finds themselves crammed onto public transit, reaching for the straps for balance. Grescoe feels however, that the definition should be expanded. “For me, being a straphanger can mean being a cyclist or a pedestrian—because in many cities, bicycles are a form of mass transportation, and every ride on a bus, subway, or light-rail train begins and ends on foot, with a walk to work, or school, or home.”

Grescoe says that Strasbourg (France) trams are an example of transit done right. Photo by Klaus Philipsen.

Grescoe showed the audience some examples of what he felt was transit done right, that could be used for inspiration for Toronto. They included:

  • Strasbourg, France's tram system which runs through its historic center. Grescoe cites it as an example of how to give almost all of downtown street space over to transit, allowing people to easily move about.
  • High-speed trains for medium to long-distance travel, such as the Shanghai Maglev Train, which can move passengers at about 430 km/h. Grescoe laments that Canada is the only G8 country to not to be building any high speed rail. “There’s no reason—except for the limited vision of the federal government— that there shouldn’t be high speed rail in Canada”, he said. “Inter-city trains, I believe, are a crucial part of an urban transportation network.”
  • Moscow Metro stations, which meld efficient transportation with incredible art and design. Pointing to a slide of Moscow's Dostoevskaya station, he said in an amused fashion that the station was “certainly the only transit stop in the world whose official décor features a mural of a would-be nihilist ax-murdering an elderly pawnbroker” while also highlighting the Russian Baroque splendour for which the Moscow Metro is best known.

Perugia's MiniMetro (Italy), which Grescoe says is an example of transit function fitting urban form. Photo by 61max.

As important as the big infrastructure is, Grescoe said that paying attention to how systems connect is important too, and showed examples such as Perugia's MiniMetro, and the mid-level escalators of Hong Kong, both of which served to move small amounts of population quickly and effectively. “I’m showing you these to emphasize that transit isn’t always about subways, or buses, or light rail. It’s about mobility. But mobility has to be matched, with artistry and imagination, to the city you’re bringing it to. If you’re looking for bang for your transportation buck, slapping a billion-dollar rail project onto a city it’s not suited to is just a waste of money.”

Grescoe criticized Toronto's failure to build new transit infrastructure to meet its population needs, calling the city “North America's biggest example of a transit fail”. Furthermore, he criticized the slowness to build dense mid-rise streets, not only in Toronto, but in growing cities like Calgary and Vancouver. In the face of a Canada that only seems to want to build glass towers or knockoff Victorian single-family housing, he said the only explanation that makes sense is that “we suffer from a toxic blend of greed, NIMBYism, and car-centric thinking, all of which are driving us towards urban paralysis.”

Bogotá's TransMilenio, which uses a feeder system that Grescoe says Toronto can learn from. Photo by CEFER.

Grescoe pointed to Bogotá's TransMilenio bus rapid transit system which uses smaller feeder buses that connect to larger articulated buses in order to move 1.7 million passengers a day, at a profit no less. He said while Toronto achieves something similar with its own buses feeding into the city's subway system, as TransMilenio shows, it could do more, and for a relatively low-cost.

But, Grescoe said, one big obstacle in Canada is a federal government that is lagging behind. He pointed how the federal government has spent $7 billion on public transportation since 2006, while Germany spends €8 billion every year. “Canada has astonishingly high levels of transit ridership—in other words, we already have public buy-in. With reliable funding from the feds, year-in, year-out, Canada’s transit systems would be the envy of the world.”

Grescoe says that cargo bikes are an innovative step in ditching the car. Photo by Vik Approved.

Grescoe ended his speech by imploring both the urban planners in attendance, and the who's-who of industry professionals, to start tackling the immense challenge that faces Toronto by thinking about how they can change people's relationship not only with the street, but with the neighbourhoods they live in.

“Why go zipping around in a car if you actually like the place you live? Which is why I think everybody who considers him or herself an urbanist or planner should be asking one very important question: Why aren’t we building ourselves streets, and neighborhoods, and cities, that we want to linger in, rather than escape from?”

Photo of Dostoevskaya Metro Station (Russia). Photo by Dmitriy Valtonen.

Does Mr. Grescoe's talk resonate with you? Are there other international examples that you would cite where Toronto could look to solve its transit needs? Leave a comment below.