I don’t know how to process last week’s New Yorker article by Evan Osnos, The Haves and Have-Yachts. In my day, the well-to-do were satisfied sharing nautical space with a handful of their social inferiors on the most basic of three-hour tours. Although, it is true, they were just millionaires, and the wife.
Apparently, our regular daily travel times haven’t changed all that much over the years. According to a recent article in Nature, Six research routes to steer transport policy, “On average, people around the world spend an hour a day travelling, a pattern that has held for centuries and across cultures.”
By that calculation, many of us here in the GTA are pitching in to bring up that average time, especially commuters in the outer areas of the region, places like Oshawa and up in Barrie, who clock in at 45 minutes, one-way. Kind of confounding, when you think about it. Living in an age of speedy trains and automobiles, yet here we are, some of us, lagging behind the horse-and-trolley era.
How can that possibly be?
Well, as it turns out, according to the article’s authors, Eric Bruun and Moshe Givoni, commuting and simply getting around are not simply all about the advanced technology. In fact, they warn that a simple reliance on new technologies like the all hailed driverless cars to untangle our congested mess of traffic woes could just as easily make matters worse.
Although the excitement associated with a new product, service or tool is often justified, the negative, unintended impacts must be anticipated.
Take the driverless cars. Depending on whom one asks, such cars will be in wide use in some countries by 2025 or 2050. They are framed as a technology that offers cheap mobility while saving time and energy. But it was exactly this thinking that brought us the ‘with-driver’ private car and its unsustainable consequences.
The driverless car promises to be even more successful. Getting people out of their driverless cars will be even harder.
By making driving easier and, more fun or, at least, tolerable, and better improving traffic flow, driverless cars will attract more drivers. At which point of time, new technology runs smack dab into old rules of the road like induced demand. Better driving = more driving. No one’s yet figured out how to design or build around that one absolute constant in the congestion equation. Bruun and Givoni suggest that driverless vehicles may be a much more valuable technological advance in terms of public transit.
Even something like Uber, the self-vaunted, self-dubbed car-sharing disruptive technology may possibly entice more cars onto our roads. “Like any innovation they are a great opportunity but also carry risks.” Freed of expensive driving headaches like parking, more people may opt for the cheaper alternative, Uber, which is still a car. More people using Uber instead of their own cars merely mean swapping cars. In terms of congestion, a car’s a car. “Even with shared cars, it is physically impossible for large cities to meet everyone’s travel needs with what is essentially a variation of single-occupant vehicles.”
We can’t simply cross our fingers, close our eyes and pray that some magical technological innovation will sweep our roads and highways free of congestion, improve our lives or clean our dishes for us. OK. That, we have. But changing how we get around the places we live and increase our quality of life in the process is a more complex problem.
This includes the touchy subject of built form. “Total expenditure (public and private) on passenger transport decrease as urban density increases,” the authors write. “Yet zoning and infrastructure investment decisions are not based on broader scientific analyses of the impacts.”
Gentlemen, let me introduce you to Toronto’s Scarborough subway debate where built form has zero connection to ‘passenger transport’ decisions and ‘broader scientific analyses’ consists of nothing more than wishful incantations. Subways, subways, subways.
Given that experience here, it’s difficult not to see Bruun and Givoni’s call for more scientific and date-driven decision making as hopelessly naïve and ivory tower locked. “Researchers must come up with new evaluation methods that are robust and scientifically defensible,” they write. Uh huh. “The outputs must be comprehensible to elected officials and to the public.” Absolutely. “Such methods must include both quantitative and qualitative benefits and costs, and capture a much larger array of them.” Hear, hear!
And when all that work falls on deaf ears, ears plugged by political machinations and parochial resentment? What we really should be working on is some sort of gene therapy that creates leadership willing to be honest and forthright about the need to confront our prevailing transportation status quo. Leadership willing to argue it’ll take more than a few tweaks here and there, that there’s no one miracle innovation to turn this thing around. Discover a switch to turn on the political courage gene.
While we’re at it, maybe we can also try and rediscover that seemingly atavistic trait in all of us to see beyond our own self-interested short term point of view.
Echoing Jan Gehl, Eric Bruun and Moshe Giovani insist that “Our transport systems’, as well as our cities must be planned for people – not for a particular mode of transport or by a handful of companies with vast lobbying power.” The tools to do so are at our disposal. It’s our will that is lacking.
Sitting, hanging out with my 1 geeky, egg-head science acquaintance who also serves as an official nerd football pool advisor with his fancy-schmancy algorithmic predictive powers (he got me on the ground floor of the Cowboys-certainly-aren’t-going-to-the-Super-Bowl-this-year), he reaches into the tattered plastic bag he uses to carry his belongings and hands me a magazine. Yeah, I know. What’s with the plastic bag? You’d think with all conferences these science folk attend and the canvas sack swag that’s tossed around at such gatherings, there’d be no shortage of non-plastic tote bags. But these scientific types, they think differently from normal people.
The magazine handed to me is Nature, one of the preeminent science publications going. Its October 21st issue is labeled: Science and the City/How cities nurture research – and how research can sustain them. Huh, I think. How does he know this is something that might interest me? I like to keep our relationship on a purely professional level. He tells me what teams to pick and I pick them. Clean. To the point. Uncomplicated. What other information about me lies, lurking, waiting to pop up from behind those thick, horn-rimmed glasses of his? Somehow, this friendly gesture on his part has now become creepy and full of suspect intentions.
But I’ll leave that to sort out away from public scrutiny. What you should know is that, according to Nature, the scientific community has decided that cities, and the studying of them, is becoming increasingly important not only for the cities themselves or the scientific community but for the sake of humanity and the fate of the planet. Why? Well, because of the numbers. More than 50% of the earth’s population now lives in cities. That’s up from only 29% just two generations ago. 40 years from now, the estimates have it somewhere in the neighbourhood of 70% urban population. Cities around the globe are growing at a rate of 1 million people per week!
Problems, of course, arise with such growth, much of it unplanned and uncontrolled, not the least of which is climate change. Cities already account for more than 70% of “the energy-related carbon dioxide emissions”. But as Jeb Brugmann writes in Welcome to the Urban Revolution people don’t come to the cities because of the problems. They come because of the opportunities. And opportunities grow along with a city’s population. Personal opportunities as well as those that can help fix the problems we face. If cities have become the largest contributors to climate change, they are also on the forefront of the solutions, darting ahead of provinces, states and countries who are hamstrung by a toxic combination of disinterest, self-interest and mistrust.
I could hardly do justice in trying to fully explain all the information that Nature’s 9 or so articles and editorials presented, suffice to say that it all got me thinking about what we as a city went and did a couple Mondays ago. While great thinkers in a multitude of studies have turned their attentions to the well-being of cities and how to plan, design and build them in a sustainable, livable and equitable way, the good people of Toronto have decided to turn their backs on all that. With a new mayor waiting in the wings, I wonder about the fate of the Tower Renewal Program. Lawrence Heights redevelopment. Transit City.
We, as a city, seemed poised to take a step back from any sort of forward thinking at a time when we can least afford it. As an urban agenda gains more traction throughout the world, Toronto now is without one unless you count filling potholes and fixing streetlights and customer service as an agenda. If you do, you suffer from a severe lack of imagination as well as nerve.
I will refrain from pointing fingers and casting aspersions at those who felt justified enough in their anger toward the outgoing administration to vote for Rob Ford. It probably felt really good. Enjoy it while it lasts. The pleasure of vindictive voting is fleeting and I’m guessing about 20% of you will be very sorry very quickly for what you did. The change you’ll see probably won’t be the change you thought you voted for.
No, my beef is with all those opinion makers and editorial writers who should’ve known better. Those whose job it is, those with the time if not inclination to see above the fray and to have a wider scope of what was at stake, what the city really needed to be focusing on, and who didn’t do it. Instead, you took the easy route and pandered to personality and campaign tactics. You went for the simplest to follow narrative and in the process, revealed your contempt and disdain for this city.
So if you ever wrote or said something out loud for other people to hear or read suggesting that Rob Ford would be a good mayor or would be what Toronto needed right now, maybe during the course of the next 4 years, you can do us all a big fat favour and just be quiet. Maybe what you need to do is take some time, look around and see what’s happening in other cities around the world, cities that are responsibly facing future challenges, cities prepared to be global players. Do some homework. Read Nature. Whatever. Just shut the fuck up and let the people who really care about Toronto go about their business of making it a better place to live and not just somewhere you report about.