Breakfast with Anthony, musings on transportation

Anthony Perl, the Urban Studies Director at Simon Fraser University, is an old family friend who I met 24 years ago when he and Charlie lived at Massey College in the University of Toronto.  At the time, Anthony’s main claim to fame was that he had become the president of the National Association of Railroad Passengers by sending proxy ballots in pre-addressed envelopes to the entire membership, and therefore came into the convention with half the members in his pocket.  His main competitor was the love of his life, who at the time regarded him as childish and in need of much refinement, but was eventually persuaded to marry him.  He is very engaging.

His fascination with trains led him to focus on public transportation policy in his political science studies, while writing travel articles for train magazines.  In promoting trains, he started to research the environmental benefits of rail transportation and came to be concerned simultaneously about oil depletion and global warming.  And from there he moved onto sound urban planning.  A whole career built around trainwatching with his dad as a boy.

When Anthony is in town, which is fairly regularly, he always makes time to meet with our enormous clan.  So this morning, we met Anthony for brunch, and the burning topic on my agenda was a sensible national transportation policy.  Anthony’s biggest contribution to this discussion was the idea of establishing a 1-2 year moratorium on any new infrastructure – no new roads, no new rail, no airport expansions, no more ports.  Since it is clear that even on economic grounds we will have to decrease the amount of transport that goes on when oil supply can no longer meet demand, it is silly to keep investing in continued growth.  As Anthony puts it, “When you’re in a hole, the first thing you do is stop digging”.  During the period of the moratorium, we could establish a reasonable national transport policy, and then move to replace existing modes of transportation with saner alternatives, keeping in mind that the conversion to more localized economies with minimum transport will be the ultimate goal.

Another idea Anthony put forward is that sidewalks should be mandatory.  It makes sense.  The suburban ideal of grassland sloping directly onto the street is hostile to pedestrians.  We need to develop a culture that puts pedestrians first, bicycles and transit next, and cars as an afterthought.  The third clever idea Anthony had relates to parking, and according to Anthony, was used in the United States during the second world war, when no cars were manufactured for civilian use and car use was heavily discouraged.  Parking was charged on the basis of empty seats.  So, if we follow Anthony’s advice, and you arrive at a parking lot with every seat full, you pay nothing.  If you have 4 empty seats, you pay a couple dollars a seat, every hour.

As I see it, the apparent insanity of North American development, which was built up for car primacy, can be turned around to make our cities more liveable.  While the city cores of European cities never could accomodate a lot of car traffic, and will adapt well to the demise of a car culture, we will have to develop alternative visions.  Our cities are not as compact as those in Europe, but our multi-lane roads can eventually be converted into treed walkways.  What we lose in close community, we can gain in bringing nature directly into the city.

Which brings me to something completely different.  Charlie grew up primarily in Bloomington, Indiana, which is a university town.  The Indiana University campus occupies a big part of the city centre.  It was built as a checkerboard of buildings separated by enormous squares of connected woods.  Students walking through these woods between classes encounter deer and other wildlife.  To someone like Charlie, the idea of renting a car to go to the country in order to see the nature you’ve destroyed all around you is a type of insanity.  Robert Bateman, in a talk my daughter attended some years ago, pointed out that the last remaining vestiges of natural beauty in Toronto remain in the ravine systems, where development has been limited.  Mr. Bateman wants these ravines left alone.  Too many of them are undergoing the kind of progress that consists of destroying the natural woods and replacing them with open grassland and park benches.  It’s the unspoiled ravines, like those in Rosedale, that attract wildlife and capture the imagination.  It’s in the Rosedale ravine that Mr. Bateman learned to draw.

As we begin to think about tearing down the Gardiner Expressway, it seems a little insane to me to be investing more than $550 million (and it will surely be more by the time it is built) on a 10-lane highway.  The section of the Gardiner that was torn down in our riding has given us very little benefit.  We’ve removed an eyesore, but replaced it with a river of cars that’s difficult to cross, and which attracts big-box retail like a light attracts insects.  It’s hostile to pedestrians and myopic in vision in a world rapidly running out of oil.  Matthew Day, running for councillor in Etobicoke, would like to see the existing rail corridor used to carry local commuters, a transformation that would be much cheaper to enact.  If we can spare the corridor where the Gardiner now sits from becoming a giant river of cars, maybe our legacy to our grandchildren will be the deer they encounter on their way down to the harbourfront.

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