Spreading sprawl

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
February 2, 2008

Canadians are becoming more and more dependent on the automobile, Stats-Can told us last week, citing figures showing that 74% of Canadians are full-time drivers, up from 70% in 1998 and 68% in 1992.

This trend, a natural consequence of suburban sprawl, is only to be expected. Our governments spend billions to promote the use of suburbs.

Take the most recent shot in the arm for sprawl, British Columbia’s $14-billion plan to enable longer, faster commutes; to develop the low-density areas outside Vancouver; to enable the dispersion of Vancouverites to the outlying areas; and to counter the natural incentive we all have to live close to our places of work, study, and play.

“Our new $14-billion Provincial Transit Plan will add 600 frequent buses out-side Metro Vancouver – a 60% increase,” Kevin Falcon, BC’s Minister of Transportation, boasted to the Chilliwack Times this week, explaining the provincial desire that Chilliwack and other communities outside Vancouver grow their populations.

“We will be putting frequent buses along the Trans-Canada Highway to connect Abbotsford and Chilliwack to Langley, Surrey and our rapid transit stations,” Mr. Falcon continued, adding that the government will ultimately provide gold-plated bus and rail service to make it easy for people to leave Vancouver for the suburbs. “By 2030, Skytrain will extend out to Langley, integrating RapidBuses with Rapid Transit in Metro Vancouver.”

B.C.’s announcement follows Ontario’s own mega Move-Ontario-to-the-Suburbs-by-2020 plan, at $17.5-billion the largest transit plan in Canadian history. The plan to transform the Greater Toronto Region, an area bigger than Prince Edward Island, includes 52 rapid transit projects along 902 kilometres of new or improved rapid transit routes designed to boost region-wide travelling. “It will result in 800 million new transit trips per year,” exults the province, while only “taking 300 million car trips off GTA roads.” This net expansion of 500 million vehicular trips a year throughout the Greater Toronto Area promises to be the greatest spur to sprawl in Canadian history.

In the popular conception, the private automobile causes sprawl and public transit is either benign or beneficial as a factor of development. This misreads history, including fairly recent history.

Before the province of Ontario directed the Toronto Transit Commission to service Toronto’s outer suburbs in the early 1950s, the suburbs were largely rural and undeveloped, with densities so uniformly low that they could support but a handful of public transit lines. Only after the province stepped in by creating Metropolitan Toronto as a vehicle for massive infrastructure spending in the suburbs did sprawl on a grand scale unfold. Within a decade, the TTC’s route mileage increased by 75%, almost all of it to accommodate the suburbs and almost all of it uneconomic.

In the process, the TTC – until the advent of Metropolitan government a self-sufficient enterprise that helped make Toronto one of the continent’s most compact cities – became a burden for city taxpayers and an arch agent of sprawl.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and the Urban Renaissance Institute.

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