Putting brakes on car culture

Every day, Rob MacIsaac gets a unique perspective on the monumental task of weaning the Toronto region off its automobile addiction.

The Metrolinx chair’s ninth-floor office at the foot of Bay Street overlooks an exit ramp of the Gardiner Expressway where a seemingly endless flow of traffic inches into the city long after the traditional morning rush has ended.

Fewer than 8 per cent of regional commuters outside Toronto and 23 per cent in the city use public transit, according to the 2006 Transportation Tomorrow survey of the Toronto area. Add that to a rapidly growing regional population and it is clear nothing less than a massive cultural shift can save us from choking on our own congestion.

Smog days are now the norm in summer. Last year was the second-worst on record, with 29, contributing to an alarming incidence of respiratory illness and childhood asthma. Obesity has become the scourge of our drive-through lifestyle. Economically, road congestion costs $2 billion a year in lost productivity in the Toronto region.

And, without swift action, it’s only going to get worse.
Metrolinx is planning based on a projected growth of 2.5 million in the region, pushing the population to 8.6 million by 2031. Most of that growth will occur in the municipalities outside the city of Toronto.

The job of Metrolinx as the province’s transportation planning agency for the region spanning Oshawa and York Region to Hamilton, is to help us clean up our act. Its blueprint for an integrated network of infrastructure, the roads and rails, buses and bicycles that could help effect that shift, is due out this spring.

“We need o change the culture in transportation,” said MacIsaac. “The car is going to play a role for the foreseeable future, but we can introduce a lot of elements in combination with the car to have a much more effective system than we have today.”

That’s especially true in the regions outside the city, where the convenience of a car almost always trumps an incomplete and inconsistent public transit system.

But for MacIsaac and the regional politicians on the Metrolinx board, at least the timing for change seems right. An Ipsos-Reid survey of 1,000 residents of the GTA and Hamilton last fall found two-thirds believe the best way to improve the region’s traffic situation is by increasing public transit, compared with one-third calling for more roads.

The public is also clamouring for action on global climate change. And, earlier this month, Statistics Canada figures showed that between 2001 and 2005, the number of people walking or using public transit to get to work in Toronto was up 7.2 per cent, with those cycling rising by one-third in the Census Metropolitan Area.

Meanwhile, all three levels of government have pledged big money for public transit. Queen’s Park, through Metrolinx, is spending $11.5 billion for 52 regional projects to expand subway, streetcar, light rail and bus services by 2020. Some of that money will help expand the TTC’s Spadina and Yonge subway lines into York Region and build a network of light rail stretching to the farthest corners of the city’s suburbs. Ottawa, which is being asked to pony up $6 billion for the provincial plan, hasn’t committed to the Metrolinx plans but has earmarked some cash for its own transportation priorities.

So where do we go next?
We don’t need to re-invent the wheel to reduce our dependence on the car, say Metrolinx planners, who have spent the past year scouring the globe for solutions.

What’s clear is there’s no single right answer. A diverse region, which will be home to an estimated 9 million people by 2031, demands a jigsaw puzzle of service to attract residents ranging from young families with children to single professionals and immigrants searching for ways in and around a new home.

Today and for the next five days, the Toronto Star will look at key transportation challenges facing the region and how other cities have tackled them. Ideas include road tolls, HOV lanes, parking and financial incentives to get people to share rides, take transit, walk, cycle and work a compressed week. Planners are trying to create communities easily accessible by public transit and other modes but also destinations in themselves, attracting workers, residents, shoppers and recreation seekers.

The series also examines some customer-service ideas, the high-tech and common-sense enhancements that could transform public transit’s image.
in the Toronto area.

MacIsaac does more than talk about being a model commuter. He takes a GO train from Burlington to downtown daily and uses a car-sharing firm or the subway if he needs to get around during the day.
“It doesn’t mean I have to drive all the way here and use an expensive parking space,” he said. “That’s a great example of how we can better use the resources we have at hand.”
His task now is to come up with a road map that will persuade others to get on board.

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