Enough is enough. SmartTrack is a big marketing flop.

It is time I addressed John Tory’s Smart Track.

John Tory may win the Toronto election based on other ideas and the ability to have a consistent message.  But with the biggest issue being transit, I don’t know how someone can make claims simply based on selling this idea as bold and finally getting to yes.  I agree that the region is far behind in transit planning.  I have been extremely frustrated myself.  Financing SmartTrack using tax increment financing, which was low on Metrolinx’s Investment Strategy and within the Transit Panel goes to show that his team will do anything to sell ideas on a tired and frustrated, yet naive public wanting transit to be built now.

The voters already know there are deep concerns with large infrastructure projects being financed by this mechanism.  San Diego and Brooklyn’s Hudson Yards have been known failures.

I will throw out another quote which stemmed from the Edmonton arena debate.  TIF, which was aptly named a Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) was addressed by then Councillor (now Mayor) Don Iveson in 2013:

..the success of the CRL is contingent on the surrounding development going ahead, and I will say that if the surrounding development does go ahead, this will all work out.

But there is a bet here – because if the development doesn’t go ahead then regular taxpayers will wind up on the hook. So that billion plus dollars better be invested tomorrow.

Iveson was one of several councillors who voted against the CRL.

Edmonton isn’t exactly a hotbed for development.  So there is even a greater risk there.  The Rogers Arena will go ahead as planned and be built by 2016.  But will the financing be there?  The risk will be there.  Truth be told, this is a low risk politically but there are plenty of unknowns.

The Tory campaign has laid off showing the map because of its structural flaws, but also its references to Stapleton Airport’s TIF.  Even the right wing think tank Cato Institute has some serious concerns about TIF funding large infrastructure projects. TIF in the United States has been used to redevelop blighted neighbourhoods.  This is a known fact.  Some of the questions I would have as a concerned resident of eastern Toronto (refuse to say Scarborough) looking for immediate transit relief would be:

  • Which areas along the SmartTrack corridor are blighted?
  • Who will be displaced?
  • Will there be any upzoning and rezoning of industrial lands? Where will those jobs go?
  • What will be the financial risk to developers if this financing plan goes ahead?
  • Why haven’t other revenue tools been addressed to fund SmartTrack and where is the financing plan?

This should not be about favouring one transit mode or another nor is it about not taking risks.  GTA’ers, not just Torontonians, want a viable transit plan with the financial certainties.  This is what the Big Move and the Investment Strategy were all about.  This is the plan what we should be moving forward with.

Metrolinx is already studying the operational feasibility of a Regional Rail service. But does eastern Toronto deserve faster service over the regional GO Lakeshore Line?  Does Eastern Toronto deserve better service than the transit ghetto of Northwestern Toronto, better known as Rexdale? This is just merely playing politics where the Fords controlled the message and the Liberals won on during the by-election.

It should be the collective leadership of Toronto and the other cities and regions, as well as the province to come up with the best financing plan possible.  Not something that has low political risk that can get you easily elected.  Leadership is about taking risks.  SmartTrack is a plan that’s setting up as a leadership fail.  It is also just a big marketing flop.

André — What makes a city great?

André — What makes a city great?.

 

My latest post, but this time on Tumblr.

The Urban Strategist Reinvented

Yes I know.  I haven’t kept up my blog posts for some time now.  The world has been reading my older posts and have been waiting on baited breath for my next post to arrive.  Ok, well not baited breath. But I’m sure you’ve all been waiting nevertheless. 

Times have changed.  So here’s the story!

I was at a crossroads in what to do with my career and this blog. I am a professional urban planner with a background in transit planning.  You were all aware of that.  But some were probably not aware of my burning desire for politics, policy and advocacy.  

You see, many urban planners are technicians.  Just like engineers, planners speak a certain language. Sometime they bicker but eventually come to a compromise.  I had proudly defended the planning profession in the work I did.  I just knew something was missing.  Something was held up inside of me.  Something just wasn’t right.  

Several months ago, I met with a friend for coffee and realized something needed to change.  I had a negative attitude, not confident, depressed, anxious and was extremely frustrated. My business was a failure. My long term relationship had ended. I was asking for advice from others who really didn’t know me. I was confused and didn’t have the answers. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do.  I hadn’t had a job interview in several months. I needed a change fast.  

I learned a lot about myself during a leadership course I completed while in Edmonton. I read Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. I had bought What colour Is Your Parachute, but was not fully engaged in the exercises?  I resorted to the True Colours Test as an answer to my problems within my career.  I still felt all the questions weren’t answered and my attitudes were still present.

My friend advised me to see a career coach to get back on track.  It took me several weeks to let it sink in.  After some research I found one within proximity.

I went into the coaching sessions with an open mind.  I learned about animal resemblances, stress management and HeartMath techniques.  I’m not going to elaborate on all of these to bore you.  What I learned was that I wasn’t really being me.  Which career paths suited me?  

In the midst of these sessions, I had lectured a second year geography class on transportation policy. I was in my element.  I taught a 90 minute class with ease.  So I know teaching was something I enjoyed.  

Many of my colleagues at my previous jobs knew I had a penchant and a desire to get into politics. Debates always happened at work. I even was cocky enough to say that I would defeat someone if him and I ever ran against each other for office.  I always wanted to run for office but didn’t want to do it until the time was right.  My ex-girlfriend didn’t want me to get into politics because she saw all the attention Rob Ford was receiving, albeit for the wrong reasons.   She was holding me back and I convinced myself this wasn’t the direction I should be going. I realized I let other people control my life.  I needed guidance to get me back on track. Another career path solved.  Now I am working to get myself into a government relations or public affairs career.  This has started by involving myself with the Soknacki for Mayor campaign.  Even at a recent event, another colleague of mine texted me afterwards and said she also noticed I was in my element.  

Finally, it was about regaining the confidence I once had.  Learning to think positively was critical.  Many of us always revert to the negative because it is easy to deflect attention away from yourself by putting down someone else and in turn making yourself feel good.  I have begun to train myself to think in a more positive light by re-reading written communication or taking a step back and rephrasing how I want messages to come out verbally.  

So what happens now with my planning career?  I am gracious for what I had learned and able to apply professionally.  Going through several interviews or not even receiving any, I had come to the realization that the planning profession isn’t for me. I had become really frustrated with technical work and mundane number crunching.   My interests now lie in urban affairs, advocacy, policy communications and networking.  What I will do with my professional planning designation is still unclear at this point and I don’t have to make a decision for another three months. 

I have decided to pick up where I left off by reading “If Mayors Ruled the World” and maybe I will re-read “The Element” afterwards for good measure.  I just finished reading David & Goliath and learned some valuable lessons which could be applicable in my career.  

So from now on, much of what I write in this blog will have less urban planning content and more about general policy issues. 

The only way is to go up from here.  Nothing is insurmountable.  The journey has begun and I am looking forward to seeing where I end up.  

 

 

 

Random thoughts…

1. Redesigning our gas stations

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While there are very few remaining single bay, mostly self-serve gas stations in Toronto, the standard multiple bay gas stations have been around for decades.  The footprint at these gas stations are quite extensive.  Sometimes they take so much space, bus stop locations are not placed in ideal locations because automobile access is necessary.  Take for instance this photo taken at the Petro Canada Gas Station located at southwest corner of Jane Street & Finch Avenue in Northwestern Toronto.

 

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A near side stop on Finch Avenue in the eastbound direction is not placed because of access to the plaza and the gas station, therefore a far side stop is necessary.  At Jane Street in the southbound direction several metres south of the intersection making eastbound to southbound transfers not ideal.   The reason why a larger footprint is necessary for this location is because it is located close to an industrial area and larger trucks would require access.

But it got me thinking, what if gas stations were turned from this:

wpid-img_20140606_143014-1.jpg

to this…

Sidewalk gas station in Europe

Sidewalk gas stations are located in urbanized areas across Europe and in some parts of South America.  Where retail is a separate use at North American gas stations, these European locations are incorporated in ground floor retail.

With this image, a cyclist can easily and safely get air to pump their tires.  Normally air pumps are located at the back of the station away from street and cyclist compete with cars.

Given space is becoming limited particularly in the downtown core, it is time planners take a hard look at incorporating on street gas pumps with ground floor retail being incorporated.  Do you think these gas station designs can work in neighbourhoods such as Liberty Village, Leslieville or Garrison Point?

2. Transit maps reimagined

As TTC is preparing to release its new system map in time for the Spadina Subway extension to Vaughan in 2016, it still runs the same mistake of separating modes by different colours.  While the various streetcar routes operate in mixed traffic, the TTC has three new LRT type routes that operate in exclusive rights-of way with signal priority – Spadina (510), Harbourfront (509) and St. Clair (512) .  While this is deemed rapid transit, the TTC does not portray it as such on its transit maps.

Courtesy of TTC

Courtesy of TTC

While the new TTC system map is focused on distinguishing service levels as explained here, the streetcar and LRT routes are treated the same.

Given the current debate of subways versus LRT is crippling Toronto in progressing towards viable transit options, TTC is definitely at fault here.  As I have experienced working in transit agencies, business development and marketing is an afterthought to transit planners, who are predominantly engineers.

My suggestions are:

  1. Change the rapid transit system maps to reflect the LRT service.
  2.  Separate the Harbourfront, Spadina and St. Clair routes from the streetcar routes on the system map with different colours.
  3. As with other transit systems, namely in Brampton, Mississauga, York Region and Durham Region, rename the routes and recolour the vehicles away from the TTC red. The new LRVs will be in operation on Spadina later this year.  Nevertheless, this re-imaging would go a long way.  Understandably a marketing study would be required that would cost several thousands of dollars.  Isn’t repairing customer service a priority for the TTC?

3. A new regional governance structure is necessary for the Greater Toronto Area

I spoke with several urban policy leaders several weeks ago regarding the need to develop a new regional governance structure beyond what currently exists.  While I commend the  Neptis Foundation recently released a report on seamless travel within the GTHA, I believe we can go a step further.

While regional governments in Hamilton, Toronto and Ottawa were abolished to create megacity structures at the turn of the century, regional municipalities that were established in the 1950s still remain.  I strongly believe the old regional municipalities model should be eliminated and develop a regional governance structure.  Geographic boundaries and political makeup would have to be determined by the cities and province.  This idea had already been floated in the Golden Report in 1996.

Economic development, infrastructure and transit are very critical to cities, let alone regions. While there are separate agreements for hard services between cities and regions are made, soft services such as governance, health, and emergency services are equally as important and require collaboration.  For example, suburban poverty and affordable housing are looming issues.  These are not Toronto specific issues, but issues in both cities and suburbs.

While policy isn’t sexy enough for voters, it was important to get the message out that it is necessary moving forward. During the provincial election campaign, uploading of rapid transit to the province has been raised by the Progressive Conservatives as part of their Great Cities election platform.  While I generally disagree with anything on the right side of the political spectrum including the majority of their plan, I do agree with this idea for transit except that it should be a regional special purpose body structure with funding tied to it, similar to Translink in the Metro Vancouver.

In The Metropolitan Revolution and If Mayors Ruled the World, the authors outline the importance of cities on the world stage while downplaying the importance of senior levels of governments to accomplish anything.  In the GTAs case, instead of cities competing with each other, city leaders should be collaborating as a region to not only promote, but also to bring new companies to the area.

Unfortunately, populism is a dominant force in the Toronto area.  A recent example of this was at the 8-80 Cities talk with Charles Montgomery promoting his book The Happy City.  A question from Linda Weichel from Civic Action  was posed to the mayoral candidates Bonnie Crombie, Olivia Chow and Fred Eisenberger in how would we pay for building future transit infrastructure.  While Chow and Crombie passed the buck to the province, Eisenberger rightfully stated that we cannot continue to pass the buck and revenue tools are on the table.  While these are only campaign promises, leadership is about taking risks instead of being the popular kid in school just to make friends.  A regional structure would bring light to the importance of revenue tools to building new transportation infrastructure.

Urban design and placemaking concepts needed for a revitalized Lawrence Plaza

 

Lawrence Plaza in the 1950s. Courtesy of J-Cagney.

Lawrence Plaza has had the same layout since its opening in 1953.  As the first plaza in Toronto, it was reflective of the growth of the auto.  Cars being the dominant mode of transportation while pedestrians were pushed off to the side.  Even today we see these same formats at many of the suburban power centres across the 905 region.

Unlike the multi ethnic strip malls found as close as Bathurst & Wilson with its Filipino contingent and evident in Thistletown with the South Asian community, Lawrence Plaza is holding onto its past and dying a slow death. Stores like Loblaws, The Bay, LCBO, Tamblyn used to grace storefronts. Now multiple banks and chains such as Shoppers Drug Mart, Winners, Metro and Second Cup. The holdovers from yesteryear are the United Bakers Dairy Restaurant and the Regal-St Clair Bridge Club.

Many of the Jewish owned restaurants and shops line Bathurst Street.   But for shopping needs Kosher products can be found at Metro.  Given the high concentration of Filipinos and their affiliation with the health care industry,  medical clinics are nearby with one opening up in a former Orthodox school.

Now with the demographics of the Lawrence Manor neighbourhood ever changing,  an increase of low and high rise residential, expansion of Yorkdale Shopping Centre and the soon to be revitalization of the Lawrence Heights community, can suburban plazas like Lawrence Plaza hold up?

 

image

These shots were taken in the early evening. Reflective of the demographics in the Lawrence Manor neighbourhood, the stores within the plaza has very little resemblance of these ethnic communities.

Lawrence Plaza lacks definition.  With its high retail turnover, too many gaps need to be filled.  It is clear banks and grocery shopping are needed.  Lawrence Square located at Allen Road and Lawrence is also an unsuccessful shopping mall.  The rebirth of Yorkdale as a regional shopping destination with the attraction of high end retailers such as Tiffany and with the additions of  Nordstrom, Versace and Jimmy Choo opening  in a few years, many shoppers will flock there. While a growing seniors population has become prevalent,  a rethink is definitely required for this retail space.

I have a couple of ideas that might stir up some debate.  If a new retail plaza is defined, it must be walkable like the Shops at Don Mills or Crossroads at St.Clair and Keele.  While still being mindful of the neighbourhood characteristics, the redesign should continue to offer residents grocery shopping and banking.  Another option which maybe more feasible could be similar to the design of Empress Walk with multiple condos, live-work spaces and ground floor retail.   Not forgetting the attraction of young families and creatives, the footprint is amenable to incubators which would have frequent transit and two subway stations nearby.

Talks of a renovation happened in the mid 1990s but was overwhelmingly rejected by residents at the old North York City Council.  I would hope that with the upcoming municipal elections, candidates will have a foresight for revitalizing Lawrence Plaza.   The a new vision for the northwest corner of  Bathurst and Lawrence can be a catalyst for future development and provide an example of what all four intersections can become.

What’s happening with the Finch West LRT?

IMG_20140501_182912

 

My interest in Thursday night’s Community Action Planning Group was from comprehensive planning and transportation perspectives.  Many of those who attended were interested in the progress of the Finch West LRT.  It is currently in the early planning stages (30% according to Metrolinx sources).  Construction is set to commence in 2015 and to be completed in 2020.

The panel consisted of  Mitch Stambler (TTC), Jamie Robinson (Metrolinx) and  Toronto Councillor and TTC Chair Maria Augimeri (picture above).

Many of the community’s questions were regarding:

- communicating the differentiation between LRT and streetcars

- special fares for the low income community and front end customer service (ie bus drivers)

- transit infrastructure and technology ( surprisingly someone raised MAGLEV)

- community benefits

Earlier in the day, I posted several photos on my Instagram account of a what I feel is the most important areas along the line – Jane and Finch .  One of the open tract of land on the north side of Finch between Norfinch Drive and York Gate Boulevard. This area has stood vacant for decades, probably because of the power lines relatively close by.

IMG_20140501_140955

The four corners of Jane and Finch consist of an inward looking Jane and Finch Mall, Norfinch Plaza, the towers off in the distance and two gas stations.   From a transportation perspective, the gas stations serve their purpose as they are within proximity of Highway 400.  Because of these gas stations, bus stops are located on the far side making transfers difficult.

IMG_20140501_142059

The towers are setback from the intersection which almost have similar characteristics as back facing lots to the street.  Clearly this intersection is not meant for people or cyclists, but for cars.

Other noticeable observations include the entrance to York Woods Library, which does not face Finch Avenue.  Cardinal McGuigan Catholic High School has a huge plot of greenspace separating the school from the street.  Along with the industrial area near Highway 400,  much of the Finch West Corridor is what I refer to as a suburban hellhole.

Since the LRT project falls under the jursidiction of Metrolinx, Jamie Robinson equated what could happen on Finch to that of Eglinton Connects, which includes $150 million of streetscaping.  How much could Finch West cost?  Surely a secondary plan would be needed to improve the Jane and Finch intersection, which would have to include revitalization – similar to that of Lawrence Heights, Regent Park and Alexandria Park.   Several of the homes and strip plazas west of Weston Road would be subject to expropriation.   Will much of the industrial land be rezoned?  Surely a 400-Finch study will be needed as well.

BRT  or LRT?

Now here is where I have been tossing and turning over which transit mode would be more suitable for this corridor.  I compare the Finch West corridor to the Highway 7 corridor with which York Region Transit VIVA BRT operates on.  The similarities include auto-oriented development, heavy and light industrial and an opportunity to create a hub.  The plan with VIVA is to build up development while being supported by rapid transit, then switching to light rail in the future.

I posed a question to the panel at the meeting as to why hasn’t the corridor been considered for one BRT route where Brampton Transit’s Steeles Zum could operate along the Finch West corridor.  As many readers of my blog know, I favour regional governance which includes transit.  The response I received was that it was considered and it costs money.  Of course it costs money. Passengers would have a one seat ride to the subway instead of having to transfer at Humber College.   Unfortunately this would require an new Environmental assessment and the project could be delayed.  At the same time, costs would be considerably less and could take less time to build. With sources at Metrolinx telling me that it is 30% in the project design stage, this will be a hard one to redo.  Will it be a lost opportunity?

Hamilton could consider switching modes.  But with Toronto’s fixation with rail, two separate rapid transit modes could be a foregone conclusion.

What to do in the meantime

The moderator asked a question about the short term rapid transit options.  Mitch Stambler stated articulated buses will be on the corridor in September.  I asked why a “Finch Rocket” was not considered.  I suggested that it can operate similarly to the old Finch via Allen route (as shown below).

 

Image courtesy of James Bow (www.transit.toronto.on.ca)

This route could operate with limited stops between Downsview Station and Humber College. Planners can be creative by reallocating hours from other branches of the Finch West 36 and also other lower performing routes to support this route. Once the construction of the Route 1 (Spadina) subway extension is completed in 2016, the route could be truncated at Finch West Station in which cost savings would be realized.

There wasn’t a resounding NO to this option. Will this be considered by TTC planners?

What was learned from this meeting?

I was surprised planners were not present at this meeting.  I was aware that this was a transit panel and rapid transit is the most visible infrastructure project for this community.  There was recognition by some audience members that future development is critical for this area.

I strongly believe that the wrong rapid transit mode was chosen for this area, with the decision more possibly for LRT was made because of political forces.  The Eglinton corridor already has the density as opposed to the Finch Corridor.  Much of the ridership from the corridor is from long distance commuters from North Etobicoke. North Etobicoke is a transit ghetto.

A regional transit terminal at Humber College is long overdue and there was no mention of this at the meeting.

I am assuming there are high peak period transfers to buses on Jane, Sentinel, Driftwood, Keele and Dufferin with the rest going all the way to Finch Subway Station.  There is a lack of creativity to solve short term solutions.   Also a lack of creativity to look beyond Toronto’s borders.

In essence, I was not surprised with the answers I received at this meeting.  There is a lack of vision, presently, for this corridor.  Surely as Councillor Perruzza says, it is a “Finch be damned” attitude.

gBART

André Darmanin - The Urban Strategist:

To my Greater Toronto area followers, what do these plans remind you of?

Originally posted on Systemic Failure:

The Phase-1 eBART extension, now under construction, will take BART into the Eastern Contra Costa County ex-urbs. Phase-2 would take it beyond the ex-urbs, into rural and greenfield locations. Call it gBART if you will.

It is inevitable that the empty fields surrounding gBART stations will be converted to new housing developments. But will planners use this “blank slate” opportunity to build walkable communities around transit…or will it just be more sprawl?

Well, the answer is pretty obvious from the proposed station renderings. All the stations will be built in a freeway median, surrounded by giant parking lots:

Laurel Road station

Laurel Road station

Lone Tree Way station

Lone Tree Way station

Mokelumne Trail station (at least this one has a bike/ped path)

Mokelumne Trail station (at least this one has a bike/ped path)

San Creek station

San Creek station

Balfour Road station

Balfour Road station

Discovery Bay station

Discovery Bay station

Here is the Google Streetview of the Discovery Bay station location:

discovery_bay_streetview

MTC policy is that new rail projects must incorporate transit-oriented development in order to receive funding…

View original 16 more words

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