Every city has its pros and its cons, its ups and its downs—some literal, some metaphorical. Many cities in North America are currently going through a cultural renaissance, trying to figure out how to survive in a world that looks little like the world for which the city was originally built.
For example, many North American cities were built out, not up, as land was abundant and the prices relatively cheap. That gave rise to the concept of the American dream complete with suburbs of independent dwellings and white picket fences. As populations grew, so did the suburbs and the infrastructure required to maintain these neighbourhoods. Commutes into work became longer, but that wasn’t much of a problem, as gas prices were, for decades, so low, that it was the least of people’s worries. Population density was low enough that things such as environmental pollution and smog were a non-issue. But what about now?
The challenges facing cities in North America today have swung in a different directions. Smog, and all forms of pollution have become a very real problem. Don’t believe me? Try driving up to the basin that LA is settled in and look for the layer of haze skimming the skyline. But it’s not just LA. It’s almost every large city in North America, and around the world.
Gas prices are also rising. The biggest concern about commute used to be the amount of traffic on the freeway. With the rise in gas prices though, more people are finding it prohibitively expensive to keep their house in the suburbs , and still drive in to work everyday. More people are opting for public transit, as the cost is considerably cheaper than driving. But due to public transit systems failing to develop at the speed they’re needed, commutes can become tediously long. Some people spend 4 hours a day on the train just to get to and from work. My friend Alicia spends an hour and a half to get into school, which is in downtown Toronto. The sad things is, she lives in Toronto proper. What if she lived a little further out?
The truth is that most cities in Canada, and North America as a whole, were built for the car. They weren’t based around a system of public transit as the city developed—although there are a few exceptions, such as New York. Now, to go back and try to build a proper transit system is a daunting task—it’s costly, time consuming, and disruptive to the citizen of a city. People want the change, but don’t want the taxes to rise. The city, inevitably, goes over budget and the government is known for it’s poor track record in spending funds in a fiscally responsible way, but that’s a rant for another time.
As a result, in Toronto, high rises are going up all over the place. People want to live closer to the core so that their commutes are shorter and they have easier access to the amenities of the city. People are opting out of the American dream and are creating a new dream for themselves closer to the heart of the city. This has led to increased housing prices and condos in the downtown core go for a premium. For the average working individual, it is nearly impossible to live near the city center without at least one flatmate. But housing prices may need to be discussed another time. Back to transit.
People in Toronto are lucky in that there are bike lanes on some of the major roads, and more and more people are taking advantage of the relatively mild weather, and will aim to bike as much of the year as possible. There seem to be few thoroughfares without the famous ring-and-post style bike stands that allow for bikes to be safely locked up without the traditional cramming together in a bike rack. These stands were introduced in 1985 as a way for cyclists to safely lock up their bikes on parking meters, which kept the bikes from sliding down the posts and blocking the ability of cars to park (Tammy Thorne, First Past the Post, Spacing, Fall 2006).
While there is always room for improvement, and the cyclists in Toronto are certain to points out the areas in which development is needed, compared to some cities, they’ve got a smooth ride (although some of Toronto’s roads certainly provide a bumpy ride). In cities such as Edmonton, the concept of a cyclist is almost novel. While they do exist, sightings of cyclists in Edmonton rank up there with that of Big Foot. During my time in Edmonton, I certainly knew of the cyclists. I counted many of them as my friends. However, their devotion to cycling was something I simply couldn’t fathom. Not only is the city of Edmonton divided by a rather massive river valley which creates some brutal hills for bikers, they also spend significant portions of the year covered with snow. This is to the extent that many cyclists in Edmonton opt to get studs for their bike tires for the winter season. Those who try to bike without them in the winter months will find it a slippery ride and may wipe out many times during a ride.
Unlike Toronto, Edmonton boasts no bike lanes, and motorists are uncertain of how to treat cyclists. In Edmonton pick-up trucks are fully understood, but the small segment of those opting to walk or bike in favour of driving gas guzzlers is still fairly limited. This group is growing however, and a very real environmental movement is alive in Edmonton. But as far as public transit goes, Edmonton is lacking. There is only one line on their light-rail transit system, and as previously mentioned, bike lanes do not exist. Although I must acknowledge the boons of the bike racks on the front of the bus that will ferry both you and your bike across the river valley, as well as to other parts of the city.
Edmonton, like many other North American cities, was built out, and not up. Urban sprawl is a very real issue in Edmonton. Due to the Alberta economy, people are still flush with money compared to many other parts of the continent, and as such the single detached dwelling and white picket fence dream is still very much alive. People are still driving their cars, as it’s widely acknowledged that unless you live along the LRT line, public transit in Edmonton is a bit of a joke. I remember it taking me two hours to get to my optometrist last July. And here’s the kicker, it wasn’t even across the city. My commute could have been much longer.
So now the question for cities examining transit requirements becomes, “Now what?” Some cities are opting for the ostrich approach, and are plunging their heads in the sand, hoping the issues will go away. Other cities, are grabbing the bull by the horns and are embracing the future realities of the world we now live in with an eye on the future. Others, are trying to fix their systems for now, and forget to look forward, meaning they’re always about a decade behind.
All of this comes back, however, to the citizens of a city. It is the people, people like you and I, who have the real say in what happens in the development of the cities we live in. We have the say in the officials we elect, and in our constitutional right to make our voices heard. The sad truth is, many of us feel like a drop in the bucket and never exercise our rights to make our voices heard. “What is one voice?”, we ask. Well, one voice may not be much, but never underestimate the ability of a group of like-minded individuals to influence change. Indeed, a group of individuals with a cause is the only thing that has ever successfully brought about change. Be the change you want to see in your city.
What is your dream for your city? Grab hold of that dream, and make it happen. Get involved, do research, be a savy citizen. Be the change you want to see in your city.
The Inspiration for this post came from the Fall 2006 issue of Spacing:What kind of a city do you want? Understanding Toronto’s Urban Landscape.