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'Villages' that solve our traffic chaos


Three disparate thinkers arrive at a similar conclusion

Apr. 16, 2006. 01:00 AM

Think of an elaborate Tinker Toy construction.

Now, think of sky-scraping cities � carbon copies of downtown Toronto’s commercial hub � dotting the region and interconnected by a sophisticated web of high-speed trains.

Sound futuristic? Perhaps not when compared with hover-buses, robot-driven monorails and the flying car as imaginative solutions to Greater Toronto’s traffic chaos.

But when we asked a civil engineer, an urban transportation expert and a Green Party activist about the problem, they all came up with strikingly similar fantasies on how to solve The Long Commute.

Their multi-city concept actually requires rethinking decades of urban design, not just transportation planning. It essentially asks planners, politicians and the public to abandon the idea of one big fat city towering over sprawling communities connected by freeways.

In civil engineer Baher Abdulhai’s view, this would result in tens of thousands of fewer cars commuting in and around Toronto at rush hour, clogging up streets and highways and polluting the air. Currently, nearly 80 per cent of area residents commute by car if they work more than 20 kilometres away from home, according to Statistics Canada.

We caught up with Abdulhai in his car, yes, commuting on the QEW from his Toronto office to Oakville. As a professor at the University of Toronto and director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems project, he tracks traffic patterns across the GTA and develops and applies new technologies for innovative transportation solutions.

He calls his concept of transit-connected multi-cities “employment villages.” He envisions five or six futuristic cities erected atop and around GO stations in, for example, Mississauga, Newmarket and Oshawa, with trains frequently zipping in and out of station tunnels as they transport people to and from work.

The key is putting the jobs at the station, enabling commuters to leave their cars at home. The convenience allows them to walk mere steps to the office, as many now do from Union Station. Each village would offer the amenities of downtown to attract workers � underground parking, underground malls, street-level restaurants, large central plazas, clubs and shops.

Suburban sprawl, on the other hand, has only reinforced the need for a car, Abdulhai says.

“When you scatter office towers across the whole suburbs, right there you’ve created a lasting problem because they’re not going to be accessible by any mode except driving.”

The multi-city concept also creates multi-way traffic for GO transit. Recent studies show the increase in traffic congestion on Toronto-area highways is mostly due to so-called “reverse commuters,” people living in the city and working in the suburbs, or commuting from one suburb to another. Why would they take public transit if they find themselves getting off a train in the middle of nowhere, and still have to take a bus or two and then walk a ways to get to work?

About 160,000 people ride GO trains on a typical weekday, and most are heading into the city to work.

“You don’t want people just travelling from the suburbs to downtown,” says Abdulhai. “You want people going from suburb to suburb, from downtown Toronto to all the suburbs � in all directions.” Green Party activist Raymond Dartsch had a similar GO-cities idea when we spoke to him. We caught up to Dartsch, a registered nurse, just before he was leaving for his commute. He lives in Burlington and travels to McMaster University in Hamilton, where he is doing his MBA. There is no GO train between the two cities, so he drives.

“That,” he says, “is because those large-scale infrastructure decisions (he means highways) were made without my consultation and before I was born.”

Dartsch also envisions a rapid train system that interconnects Oshawa, Peterborough, Barrie, Burlington, Hamilton, Toronto and Niagara Falls, with trains running every 15 minutes. (Right now, for example, you can get a GO train between Hamilton and Toronto only during rush hour.)

“We want a transit system that’s more like a human circulatory system. Right now, it’s more like a respiratory system where, in the morning, Toronto breathes in all these people and, in the evening, it breathes them all back out again. That’s what GO does.”

Rather than skyscrapers, he recommends GO “villages” that spring from smaller office buildings, apartments, condos, stores and restaurants � but not the big-box stores, sprawling parking lots and drab office buildings that make today’s suburban arteries so devoid of character and grace.

The City of Burlington is on Dartsch’s side. Its seven-member council is in a fight with Wal-mart, which bought up lands at the city’s Brant St. GO station. The council, looking for ways to build offices and condos at GO stations, subsequently froze development around its three stations as the dispute awaits an Ontario Municipal Board decision.

Sue Zielinski also talks about these “central hubs” that connect people living in the regions to their workplace, but she takes commuting a step further with car-, taxi-, and bicycle-sharing schemes.

Zielinski is an urban transportation planner and used to be in charge of the City of Toronto’s innovative Moving the Economy program. She now lives and works in Ann Arbor, Mich., where she had just tied up her bicycle after a few minutes’ ride from her house to the office, a renovated building on the University of Michigan campus.

Zielinski is fascinated by the emerging technologies that are turning cars into robots you can practically live in � global positioning systems, collision avoidance systems, autopilot systems, not to mention the convenience of wireless Internet, iPod docks, heated seats and flat-screen TVs. So why not make public transit just as appealing?

“Public transit can become first-class,” she insists. “The status of car transportation is starting to go the way of cigarettes.”

Zielinski envisions a multi-faceted public transit system that marries efficiency with comfort: Wi-Fi (VIA now offers it in first-class). A car-sharing service (you call ahead from the train to reserve a car in the station’s lot for short-term trips). Alternatively fuelled jitneys (shared taxis) to transport people from station to work or home. Bicycles for rent at each station. And, finally, a “smartcard” that automatically gets you onto any mode of public transit.