Reflections at the Waterfront ... Meeting
I went to the public meeting Thursday evening at the Westin Harbour Castle about the Queens Quay revitalization. I had to leave early and so I did not hear all of the final comments, but I will write about the comments that I heard during the question period, and at my table during the round table discussion, and also from meetings like this that I’ve attended before.
There are many points made, and many questions raised in this post. It's a long post, and I hope that you have the patience to read it all. But the ultimate question is do any of the proposed solutions address the current difficulties while balancing the many varied and conflicting priorities? And is this process the right way to go about it? These difficult questions give rise to more questions, and ultimately to an answer that I feel can be more fair than what is there now.
I really like going to meetings like this. They propose a vision of the city of the future; they show me what might be. And generally, the vision that they propose is better than what I currently see on the street.
What I see, and what I find to be most agreeable to me, is a city with a de-emphasis on the personal motorcar in public spaces. It shows a corresponding emphasis on public transit, walking and cycling. Considering that I hang out here, at iBikeTO, it should come as no surprise that I like this change. But there are some in this city who don’t share this view.
Roadways are very valuable spaces, and not just for the thoroughfare of the private motorcar and its occupants, and not just for the storage of these motorcars. Emergency vehicle access is vital on these roadways. And other service and delivery vehicles, i.e. Trucks, are vital to maintain a vibrant and viable community.
In an ideal world, the premise of reducing the use of the private car, and the lessened ability to use public space in which to store these cars, would be universal. It’s not. Many people see the unlimited, and unfettered, use of their car not as privilege, which it is, but as an assumed right of living in a “free” society. In order to peacefully live within a society means that there has to be limits on personal freedoms. We accept this, except when it comes to the use (more like overuse and abuse) of my car. These people will not let you take them out of their car except to bury them; and even some would like to be buried in their car. And it just so happens that these people also happen to the residents of these areas which these proposals are for.
The residents are also paralysed by ignorance, a lack of imagination, and by fear. Fear, as we all know, is extremely motivating. But ignorance, and a lack of imagination, can be just as paralysing as the traffic jams that need to be fixed in the community.
Change is terrifying. Many good books have been written about change, dealing with change, coping with change (In fact I just finished reading a good one, titled: “Who moved my cheese?” ). Change means stress. And change means meeting a devil you don’t know. I understand that there will be some reluctance, and even some hostility.
I dread going to these meetings because it means listening to these residents, to the hostility against anyone who threatens their motorcar use. They all put up the same weak arguments; they all say the same things:
- The changes will make traffic congestion worse
- It will cause more pollution, not less
- It will make their own life too difficult
- It makes for a less accessible community, not more accessible
- It will slow them down
- It’s not workable
- People only walk/cycle for three months of the year
- It’s a waste of money,
- It’s not warranted, needed, or wanted
- It’s not a problem, or,
- The problem does not demand a solution (change) so drastic as what is proposed
It is curious that one only has to go to one of these meetings to hear the same arguments that you’ll hear at any of them. Or to get a sense of the hostility.
And yet, the very reason that change is being proposed is because the status quo is not right and is not working – now. And also, what is there does not fit in with the vision that the city has for itself for the year, and years, ahead.
It is not possible to un-bake a cake; history cannot be undone. I learned this truth studying thermodynamics and physics. We cannot go back in time to undo some, or any, of the things that we did. However, we must learn from the past as we plan for our future, we must change those things which we find are not working for us, and try to find solutions that will best fit the current circumstances, which we think will work now and for the foreseeable future.
This is no easy task, and I am usually glad that it’s not my job. On the other hand, I do like to solve problems (It must come with my engineering and computer programming background) and these kinds of problems offer an opportunity in which to find creative solutions. The solution has to address the current problem while also addressing other priorities, some of which conflict with each other. And any solution has to be ultimately practical, possible, and affordable, and within scope of those whose authority will implement it.
Usually at meetings like this, potential solutions are proposed, and sometimes the pros and cons of each solution is listed against the criteria that the solution has to meet. Usually the ideal solution is not one of the ones offered, so one of the offered solutions is modified to come close to ideal. Personally, I enjoy the challenge to see if the solution that I come up with is close to one of the solutions offered, or close to the one that is accepted. Balancing the competing interests is harder than being on a high wire in gusty winds.
Every change has its pros and cons. It is very difficult to balance the many competing needs within a limited public space, and within the existing right of way. Its difficult to balance the perceived needs of residents with the needs of the rest of the city. And it most difficult to convince residents that their own personal priorities for their neighbourhood does not fit the communal needs for their neighbourhood, nor fit the future vision of the city.
Too often the attitude is: "yes, reducing the use of cars to reduce congestion is a good idea, so remove someone else’s car” while not realizing that the whole community in which they live shares this attitude, and they have collectively created this problem with their own car use. They think that the problem comes from someone else, they refuse to look in the mirror and see themselves reflected back, and they instead blame the person they see in the mirror, not recognizing their own reflection. Perhaps they are too accustomed to looking into a rear-view mirror, as in a car, and think that what they see is the car or person behind them.
What does this all mean, what is it that the city wants from us, what is it that we want from each other? These changes and discussions are also happening in my own neighbourhood, and in your neighbourhood, and in almost all of the neighbourhoods throughout the city. We have to reduce our car use: you, me, us. We have to use transit more, use our bicycles more, and we have to walk more. We have to do it for the health of our city, our children, and for our own health. We have to do it also for the wealth of our city, and for many more reasons.
I fear we may end up becoming another Cassandra. Like so many Cassandras before us, when the message is not welcome, it’s the messenger who takes the blame. While I hope that no one kills this messenger, it’s more common to discredit the messenger as a raving lunatic. It’s the fate of those who reflect people back onto themselves. We blame the mirror and it’s faults, not ourselves. Just as it’s the “other” whose car must come off the road to make way for our own car.
And why is it that we must use our cars less, or better yet, give up our cars altogether? Because the private motorcar has many disadvantages in an urban landscape that we now find we must address, namely:
- SOV (Single occupancy vehicles) use a disproportionate amount of land and public space that we are simply running out of, and cannot continue to afford to support
- All cars, even hybrids, pollute our air with noise, dust, and noxious fumes
- Because cars pollute our streets even by being parked at the side of the streets
- Because just a few private cars can block and delay an entire transit line
- Because cars make our streets, and our public spaces, unsafe
- Because cars kill and injure people
- Because cars separate drivers from other people, and decrease a driver’s tolerance towards others, because of Road Rage
- Because drivers have become uncivil in our civil society
- Because driving is not sustainable
- Because driving is, ultimately, selfish
If not cars, then what? As mentioned before, the answer is walking, cycling, and public transit.
And then come the arguments that walking distances are too far, that public transit is too infrequent and also too unreliable and unpredictable. And the argument that cycling is a summer only activity, and that cycling on these roads with it’s heavy traffic is too dangerous, and that the nature/volumes of materials to be carried are too much for a bike to take, or to take securely.
There are some good rebuttals, answers, and counter arguments to these. To appreciate any of them takes some imagination.
First off, many people who don’t walk very much overestimate walking distances or walking time, and underestimate how far they can comfortably walk. Also businesses and other services respond by moving operations closer to customers.
Public transit responds to increased demand by increasing supply. And fewer cars on the road will mean fewer delays and less unpredictability on a transit line. And a surge in transit usage should mean a corresponding increase in investment, increasing its reliability.
As for the cycling arguments, they are already addressed at iBikeTO. People can, and do cycle year round, and do so comfortably. With fewer cars and a dedicated cycling space, more people will cycle. But also, it means that cycling is much safer than before. And lastly, more goods are hauled and moved by bike (measured by tonnage or by $ value) in this world than by ship, or by air, or by truck. People haul and move all sorts of things by bike quite successfully. It takes only a bit of imagination, or else to look to the Toronto Islands for some great examples of how and what people can move by bike.
And these three modes of transport can be mixed; bicycles can be taken on public transit, walking and public transit go hand in hand, and cyclists become pedestrians the moment they dismount the bicycle. I don’t foresee a proliferation of “cycle through” shops, but I do see business owners adding bike racks for their clients.
And I’m not talking about the difference when one person or one family changes their habits in this way; I’m talking about what happens when a whole community changes its behaviour. Businesses or other services are not likely to move for one person or family. But when a whole community changes, then business and other services will be scrambling to respond. And when one community changes, it puts pressure on neighbouring communities to change. Change a few neighbourhoods and then the whole city has changed. And the whole city responds.
Traffic volumes and patterns of personal motorcars are not a constant, nor is traffic bound only to grow. Cars present a barrier to other modes of transport, and other modes of transport can, in turn, become a barrier to car use. People respond to changes by reducing the number trips taken by car, usually with the reduction or elimination of frivolous trips, often trips are consolidated. Or people find other ways of getting the same stuff done. Some will find moving closer to work is better for them. Others may be able to work from home, or else work much closer to home. Some people will start to use other means of transport. Additionally, traffic from outside the area can be diverted or discouraged.
I must admit that I left the meeting early, not only to take care of personal things that I needed to take care of, but also out of frustration with listening to the “long-time residents” of the community who have been there long enough to see the traffic changes go from good to bad, and from bad to worse.
Twenty-five years ago, Harbourfront was a place that most Torontonians avoided. Queen’s Quay was even uglier than it is now. Abandoned grain elevators still towered over the landscape. The lakefront, where accessible, was not the pretty place it is now. There were no marinas. No tour boats operated, save from the foot of Yonge Street, and it was only an Island tour, not a harbour tour, because there was nothing to see in our harbour but unused mooring berths from an era of shipping commerce lost before my time. The place stank from the malting operation. It was difficult to get to. There were no sidewalks, public transit was inadequate but underutilized, and there were no shops or restaurants. There were very few public spaces, and no parks, but the one park beside the Ferry Dock.
The Queen’s Quay and York Quay developments were really the start of what we now know as Harbourfront. I used to go down there during the winter on the weekends with my friends to dance in the only bar when I was a pre-teen; it was so empty then that they used to welcome us under-agers in for the revenues from the sodas we bought. And we bought many, and we brought more of our friends, and they brought their friends.
Slowly other developments followed, but the removal of the old concrete elevators was slow and more expensive than anticipated. Competing interests — or perhaps some would say conflicting interests — eventually got us what we have today. Skydome was also added to the area, and the TTC responded by adding the Queens Quay LRT, and they eventually tied that in with the redevelopment of the Spadina Bridge over the Railway lines and the Spadina LRT. I still remember the Spadina busses, and the painfully slow trek from Harbourfront to the Spadina station on that Bus, and I don’t miss it. But Harbourfront became a destination in the process. While primarily a summer destination (and some would say only on the weekends), my own involvement and experiences with Harbourfront continued through my life. Although I never lived at Harbourfront, I have worked there, and I still go there. I skate there at Harbourfront in the winter. I ride my bicycle to, and through, there the rest of the year. I attend events there year round. I shop there, hang out there, I bring out-of-town visitors there. I meet friends at Harbourfront, and we eat and drink there. In other words, I am like most Torontonians: I enjoy Harbourfront. And because I use the area so frequently, I didn't find it at all surprising to see a picture of myself and my family on our bikes in the handouts last night (p11, with the caption "Accommodate Vehicular traffic with fewer conflicts") and also in the presentation
But I do feel that we can make things even better at Harbourfront.
Several options were tabled for discussion and feedback:
- Do nothing
- Modify Operations
- Reduce through lanes, add bike lanes
- Through lanes on North or South side only, Martin-Goodman trail on opposite side (We got a taste of this option last year!)
- Expand ROW
Because of the existing buildings, it is not a viable option to continuously expand the right of way, which really leaves the first four options. Doing either of the first two does not really solve the current problems as identified. This only leaves options 3 and 4. Bike lanes simply don’t work well; as for why I say this you can see http://toronto.mybikelane.com/. So it’s really about how to implement Option 4.
In all honestly, I must say that it seemed like the unstated purpose of the meeting was to get community to buy-in to this option. The problem definition, the questions posed, and solution criteria seemed to point to one solution. And so I can appreciate some of the hostility from residents who may feel like the authorities have preordained the outcome, regardless of the feedback that being asked for. And it's not the first time that an EA has been accused of being usurped to sell a staff member’s pet idea, or to push for a specific idea by those who have their own motive. To ally our concerns, we have to ask more questions, like
- Is there really a problem?
- What are the problems, have they correctly been identified?
- Who are the people most affected by each of the problems?
- Is the area truly in need of improvements to address the problem?
- What are the current and future priorities for the area?
- What are the priorities of the residents?
- What are the priorities of the businesses?
- What are the priorities of the users and visitors of the area?
- What are the priorities of the services in the area, such as transit, Emergency, deliveries, etc?
- What are the priorities of the city, province and federal governments?
- Is more than one priority being identified, how can these differing priorities be rectified?
- Have the correct priorities been identified?
- Are the proposed options reflective of a solution to remedy the problem?
- How are conflicting priorities handled in the proposed solution?
- Does the balance between the conflicts seem fair?
Upon reflection, it does seem that the proposed solution mostly fits. That is, it does a better job of balancing the many competing needs than what is there today, and still holds true to the city’s vision of itself for the future.
The future will bring in to the area still more development, more residents and visitors, more attractions, and more public spaces to enjoy. This could mean even more traffic on already clogged roads, which ultimately means more conflicts of space between cars, transit, pedestrians, and cyclists.
Now the next phase for this area is in front of us. We must choose what is best for our city, for our Harbourfront, and for the adjacent communities. Do we want Harbourfront to stay the same, with its almost continual traffic tie-ups through the summer? Or do we want the Martin-Goodman trail to continue through this beautiful part of the city? Do we want to have tour busses just sitting on Queens Quay, or do we want to have dedicated tour bus parking just a short walk away? Do we want a beautiful waterfront, or yet another blight in our city? Do we want truly accessible transit, or will the narrow streetcar islands that cannot be used by those in wheelchairs become another embarrassment to us? Do we want to allocate our public spaces to reflect the current usage by cars, transit, cyclists and pedestrians? Do we want to allocate the usage we want, or expect, to see? Or do we continue to over-allocate for motor vehicles and under allocate for everyone else? What will become the new social justice of our city?
The future is now. We must decide. Even though most of us don’t live there, and are not “long term residences” of the immediate neighbourhood, it’s still our waterfront, our Harbourfront, and our city too.
Please visit www.waterfrontoronto.ca for more info and then please contact
20 Bay Street, Suite 1310
tel: 416-214-1344 x248
Photo credit to James Koole.