April 19, 2022

Canadian Sprawl and Electrified Transit: For All? pt. 1

By Dr. David Sadoway
Viewpoint Vancouver Writer in Residence

I used to hyperventilate  about the poor state of Canadian urban and suburban transit.

Asian-based FB friends knew that I would sometimes compare the sad state of Canadian urban transit systems to those in Taipei, Singapore, Delhi, and Hong Kong — all cities that I had worked or had taught in. In my social media rants (back before, about a year ago, my FB account was supposedly hacked and I lost contact with my 900+ online friends), I expressed how those Asian cities had, in a relatively short time span, developed far superior public transit systems because of their affordability, universal accessibility, reliability and network reach.

In short, they put Canadian cities in the dust.

Friends and residents of the Asian cities that I had lived in typically used transit daily. Year-upon-year, they were seeing their transit services regularly being invested in, upgraded, and expanded upon. Those systems—the workhorse MRTs, MTRs, Metros, and vast feeder bus networks, were convenient and provided incredibly frequent, fast, and affordable mobility options for urban newcomers and visitors, including for those with accessibility and affordability challenges.

Finding a new job in many cities in Asia does not necessitate having to uproot or find new housing (or a parking lot), because affordable accommodations will be typically attainable within an affordable transit-oriented commute.

Meanwhile in my time away from Metro Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal our transit systems seemed to remain in stasis, stagnating and even declining while being treated as a very low political priority.

At the same time the capital and operating funding ‘red carpet’ continued to be rolled out for ever expansive private vehicular infrastructure networks, especially in the fast and vast growing suburbs.

Our roads seemed to have become more congested, polluted, and dangerous in the 15 years I was away from Canadian cities.

The balance between employment and housing and transit seemed increasingly out of whack and driving to work for many remained the only option for many, especially as housing prices soared.

Canadian cities, in my view, seemed to be being left in the dust by Asian cities, just as we really needed to be investing in transit alternatives for health, ecological and social justice reasons.

Investments in Canadian public transit are needed not only to stem the tide of low density, auto-dependency — or what some scholars like to call automobility — but also because we need to shift away from car and carbon oriented stranded infrastructure assets and intensive carbonscapes like roads, bridges, tunnels, flyovers, parking lots.

Up to a third of the land in many of our cities remains devoted to private car infrastructures.

When I talk to my students about automobility, I show them an infographic from David Thompson’s report for the Sustainable Prosperity Network.

His work, from nearly a decade ago, identified the deep subsidies to and hidden costs of suburban sprawl. He estimated that government spending on the capital and maintenance costs of roads in Canada amounted to nearly $29 billion annually,  nearly half of which was derived from general revenues subsidies.

His work countered common perceptions that fuel taxes are able to fully fund public roads. And it also demonstrates that annual transit spending in Canada (in the mid 2000s) amounted to only around a quarter of total road expenditures ($7.5 billion).

How can transit systems compete against subsidies which support private automobility and induce growing amounts of sprawl year-upon-year in turn, making transit even less effective or convenient?

…Continued in Part 2


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  1. Good article. Last year in The Tyee I wrote an article about parking in Vancouver,. I noted that about 20% of construction costs for new multi-unit housing goes to below-grade parking structures. With an average of $3.03 billion spent on construction, that means we have spent $6.06 billion on parking, enough to pay for a complete transit line to UBC. The City continues to ignore this stimulus to auto centricity by approving buildings with 5 storey underground garages in so-called transit oriented development along the Broadway corridor.

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