David Suzuki: Great public transit makes for a great city

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      What makes a city great? Among other things, great cities are tolerant communities that welcome and celebrate ethnic diversity. They support and foster local arts, have access to venture capital to spur entrepreneurship and innovation, and benefit from healthy local environments with clean air, clean water and access to nutritious, locally grown food.

      New York City is world class, not just because it’s a driver of global finance and a hotbed of cultural innovation; it’s also known for its green spaces, like Central Park and the award-winning High Line.

      San Francisco is celebrated for its narrow streets, compact lots, and historic buildings. These contribute to the city’s old-world charm, but they’re also the building blocks of a more sustainable urban form. They facilitate densification and decrease the cost of energy and transportation for businesses while improving walkability.

      When it comes to urban sustainability, cities in the U.S. and Canada are employing innovative programs and policies to improve the health and well-being of residents and their local environments, like reducing waste and improving recycling (Los Angeles), containing urban sprawl (Portland), conserving water (Calgary), and passing policies to combat climate change (Toronto).

      But most cities in Canada and the U.S. are lacking in infrastructure to move millions of people safely and affordably. With some notable exceptions, such as Vancouver and Calgary, no successful rapid transit infrastructure projects have been built in Canadian cities for decades.

      A recent survey of urban experts and other “city-builders” across Canada—planners, municipal politicians, academics, nongovernmental organizations, developers, and architects—concluded the abysmal state of public transit is the Achilles heel of urban sustainability and is holding many cities back from achieving greatness.

      Toronto residents spend more time battling congestion to get to and from work than in any other city in North America. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as successive governments have failed to sustain and expand transit systems, even though the region has grown by about a 100,000 new residents a year. Toronto now scores 15th of 21 on per capita investment in public transit among large global cities—well behind sixth-placed New York City, which spends twice as much.

      This failure to address transit infrastructure is serious. The Toronto Board of Trade estimates congestion costs the economy $6 billion a year in lost productivity.

      Furthermore, air pollution from traffic congestion is a major threat to public health, especially for our most vulnerable citizens, like children and the elderly. According to the Toronto Board of Health, pollution-related ailments result in 440 premature deaths, 1,700 hospitalizations, 1,200 acute bronchitis episodes, and about 68,000 asthma-symptom days a year.

      Fortunately, politicians are starting to respond. Ontario’s government plans to spend billions to expand its regional transit system in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, under a plan called the Big Move. It’s also looking at new financing tools to ensure funding levels are adequate and continue into the future. But before we spend enormous amounts on improvements, we need to ensure projects contribute to a region-wide rapid transit network using the latest technology and adhering to the highest sustainability standards. They should also move the most people in the most cost-effective way.

      That’s why a proposal to use diesel trains for the Air-Rail-Link plan to connect downtown Toronto with its international airport in Mississauga is concerning. A rapid transit link with the airport is long overdue, but heavy diesel trains emit particulates and other contaminants, including known carcinogens. The proposed rail line would be close to dozens of schools and daycare centres, several long-term care facilities, and a chronic respiratory care hospital.

      Numerous experts, including Toronto’s Medical Health Officer, have urged the Ontario government to abandon its diesel plan in favour of electric trains that could be better integrated into a region-wide rapid transit network.

      Vancouver, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and New York City have consistently ranked among the most livable cities on the continent, in part because they take the environment into account for planning decisions. They all have world-class public transit systems that move residents in a safe, affordable, and sustainable way. It’s time for Toronto and its suburbs to do the same. Effective transit and transportation solutions can spur economic productivity, protect the environment, and improve quality of life.



      ernst rommul

      Jun 4, 2013 at 11:43pm

      David,pls stop bashing Toronto. Diesel trains?

      Hmm, how about bee line diesel convoys on broadway? Too far from TO?

      Lee L.

      Jun 5, 2013 at 12:03am

      Yes Dave. Horse lanes please.

      Bear in mind the enormous cost to build and to operate at a huge loss every one of these transit systems in 'great cities'. And what is the return?

      Well you know, IF you could put everyone onto a utopian greenhouse gas free transit system ( no diesel buses PLEASE!!) and take every single car in the lower mainland OFF the road forever. What would you get?

      You would offset 1/2 of 1 coal fired electric plant of the type being built by China. China brings a new one onstream every 5 DAYS. China will continue until it has built another 350. India will build over 450 coal fired plants and even Germany is building 12. So take your pick. Lose all the cars in all of the lower mainland FOREVER and offset half of one German coal plant or half a yet to be built Indian coal plant. But that's all you will get. Oh and I forgot.. you only get that, Dave, if you continue to buy the fuel you would have used driving, in perpetuity. Once bought, the fuel will have to be sequestered in tanks and never burned. If you don't continue to buy the fuel, then it will be sold to China or the USA or..???

      Nice idea, that public transit.

      Stephen Rees

      Jun 5, 2013 at 8:33am

      Modern diesel locomotives built to US EPA Tier 4 standards are, in fact, very clean. Electric trains in Ontario would draw their power from mostly coal fired power stations - so they are not zero emission but elsewhere emission. The greenhouse gas emissions per passenger kilometre travelled far lower for those using trains - even diesel powered powered one using old locomotives - than people driving. Or, since we're discussing airport traffic, people being driven in taxis and limos. Lots of deadhead mileage on those modes.

      GO Transit provides longer distance commuter trains - and buses - right across the GTA and beyond, and contributes hugely to the reduction of traffic, local air pollution and GHG. And it does that with diesel buses and diesel trains.

      Sometimes the best is the enemy of the good. Insist on hugely expensive electrification of one short line to see the whole proposal collapse as uneconomic. Yeah, that's a good way to protect the environment.

      Evil Eye

      Jun 5, 2013 at 9:30am

      Guess what and this is from Metro Vancouver, in 1994, when there was just one Skytrain line, the mode share for travel in Metro Vancouver was 57% for autos. Fast forward to 2011 and $8 billion dollars later ($6 billion represents the total taxpayer's monies invested with 'rapid transit' since 1994) and now with the Millennium Line and the Canada Line (which isn't Skytrain at all, but an heavy rail metro built as light-metro) in operation, the Metro road share by autos remained at 57%!

      All the hype and hoopla about public transit is a sad charade on a failed transit system, which ridership increases have just matched population growth.

      Of course this is lost on Vancouver residents who have massive transit infrastructure, paid for by metro and provincial taxpayers.

      Sorry Susy and your pals, your transit train has left you standing at the station, waiting for the next train that may never come, unless that is, you want to go to Coquitlam.


      Jun 5, 2013 at 9:44am


      One return of having rapid transit is that you have rapid transit.

      Been to Manhattan lately? Imagine driving in that.

      Metro Vancouver projects adding 1M+ population by 2036. Now, most of us will be bicycling by then...but, you know, some will also take the subway.

      Alan Layton

      Jun 5, 2013 at 12:29pm

      Evil Eye - why did you fail to give the ridership statistics between 1994 and today? Using car 'mode share' to prove that the Skytrain is a fraud is weak at best. It would seem more logical to look at transit ridership rather than car use.

      Faisal Moola

      Jun 5, 2013 at 1:01pm

      Stephen, you are mistaken. If electrified the ARL line would not be drawing power from coal but from a mix of nuclear, cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable energy such as wind and solar. Ontario is well on its way to close it's last coal-powered electricity generating station by the end of this year. cheers. Faisal Moola, David Suzuki Foundation. http://www.thestar.com/business/2013/01/10/ontario_coalburning_power_pla...


      Jun 5, 2013 at 1:23pm

      I love the comment about "walkability" in San Francisco. No one I know who lives there walks. Some take transit, but most drive. Transit is a nice tool, but certainly not the answer. Ever tried taking your new microwave or TV home on the transit system?

      Pender Guy

      Jun 5, 2013 at 7:16pm

      Still waiting for the Suzuki bashers to jump in on this saying how big his carbon footprint is.
      Quick to judge naysayers.

      @ Alan Layton

      Jun 5, 2013 at 7:37pm

      TransLink ridership statistics are useless today. with the proliferation of the U-Pass (over 110,000 issued) means that "boardings" which TransLink counts, means that actual people using transit maybe only 40% of actual boardings, with U-Pass holders using the transit system more, giving the illusion of higher boardings.

      Example: 100,000 people boarding transit, may mean 50,000 actual people use transit, but when one factors in multiple "boardings" with the universal U-Pass, it maybe only 40,000 actual people use transit.

      No transit system is an island unto itself, rather it is part of the whole and the transit system is not carrying the ridership that TransLink would have us think.

      The over-crowed SkyTrain and buses are a management problem, as TransLink is not providing the service to match traffic flows.

      Why do you think there is a massive highway building campaign in metro Vancouver? The mini-metro system and the buses are not carrying the ridership that you think it is.

      Building more Skytrain, like the Evergreen Line will not solve any transit problems at all, but it will further drive up the cost of providing transit in the region. Higher taxes drive people outside of metro Vancouver, which in-turn creates more commuting chaos.