Suburban Growth in Ontario’s Mid-Sized Cities

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Photo by Samuel Bietenholz

Mid-sized cities are having trouble keeping people downtown and encouraging denser living. The Martin Prosperity Institute issued a report analyzing growth patterns for  six Ontario cities: Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Windsor, Hamilton, and Oshawa. They found the following:

From 2001–2006 (this is the most recent data available for community profiles) most of the population growth taking place in these municipalities occurred in outer suburbs.

 

Percentage of population change, 2001-2006 by area.  Source: Martin Prosperity Institute

Percentage of population change, 2001-2006 by area. Source: Martin Prosperity Institute

Even more discouraging for urbanists is that the report found that in the five year period, the population of these city centres and inner suburbs was declining. The author concludes:

This discovery runs counter to the provincial policy put in place to stem sprawl in the past decade, and indicates that something is awry with Ontario Smart Growth policy implementation.

While these findings are interesting, I wouldn’t rush to judge the Smart Growth policy implementation. The Growth plan was only implemented in 2005. Looking at data from 2001-2006 would therefore not have captured any significant changes in growth patterns caused by the Growth Plan. Growth patterns take decades, not years to change, and many municipalities only implemented new growth plans in the last four years.

Yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ontario’s mid-sized cities will continue to grow outward instead of upward. There are several reasons for this. First, mid-sized cities tend to be far less dense compared to large urban centres. Therefore, the amenities and employment opportunities commonly associated with density in larger cities are less likely to exist.

Lower densities also mean that public transportation systems in mid-sized cities tend to be far smaller and less convenient. Congestion is relatively mild and commuting by car is quick and convenient. Commute times in these six cities averages 24 minutes (Toronto is 33)  and only an average of 8% of people get to work using transit. Because most commuting is by car, employment and shopping is centred around locations that are easy to get to by car, not downtown. This encourages growth at the fringe were land is cheap and accessible and makes attracting jobs and residents to mid-sized downtowns far more challenging.

While I wouldn’t rush to judge the outcome of Ontario’s Smart Growth policy in mid-sized cities, it is clear that the challenges facing Ontario’s mid-sized cities in promoting smarter communities and reducing auto dependence are significant.

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Toronto’s Dangerous Streets

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This week Toronto had another reminder of how arterial streets are dangerous places.  On Monday, eight people in Toronto were hit within a 45 minute period. While details on most of the collisions are sparse, the two where a location was provided occurred on wide streets where the speed limit was over 50km/hr. This is not surprising as it is on these types of streets where 2/3 of all pedestrian fatalities occur.

Kennedy Ave. & Corvette Ave.

Kennedy Ave. & Corvette Ave. where an 83 year old man was struck and taken to hospital.

Don Mills & Havenbrook Blvd.

Don Mills & Havenbrook Blvd. where a women pushing a stroller was hit.

Police responded to the rash of accidents by advising people to wear light-coloured clothing to be more conspicuous. The Ontario Safety League echoed the statement saying “pedestrians simply need to be more visible during this time of year, when the days are getting shorter.”

Brighter clothes might help in some instances, but if we want to make walking and driving safer we need to change streets, not just clothes. In September, the Ontario Chief Coroner released a Pedestrian Death Review.The review contained a  range of recommendations to prevent accidents on streets like those picture on the right. They include:

  • Reducing the number of travel lanes
  • Installing wide parking lanes
  • Reducing the width of travel lanes, in concert with the introduction of cycling lanes
  • Installing centre medians
  • Introducing road diets
  • Installing automated traffic enforcement systems which are scientifically validated and strategically located

It is time that we start discussing these recommendations to improve safety on Toronto’s dangerous streets.

Arterial Streets are Killing People

I think its fantastic that the Ontario coroner is urging that residential speed limits be lowered to 30 kilometres an hour. Yet, while that recommendation garnered the majority of the headlines there were many more in the report, some of which I thought would have a far more significant impact on our cities and streets. For example, the report recommends that municipalities consider the introduction of speed reduction strategies that include:

  • Reducing the number of travel lanes
  • Installing wide parking lanes
  • Reducing the width of travel lanes, in concert with the introduction of cycling lanes
  • Installing centre medians
  • Introducing road diets
  • Installing automated traffic enforcement systems which are scientifically validated and strategically located

Each of these measures require removing or narrowing lanes. You only have to look to the recent spat on Jarvis to understand why these recommendations are controversial.

So why is the Ontario coroner recommending that municipalities look at removing or narrowing lanes?

The simple reason is that 75% of all pedestrian fatalities are happening on arterial streets. These are wide streets, with four or more lanes and lots of traffic. Many people live, shop, and walk along these busy streets. One of the few ways to make these streets safer is either make them narrower or reduce speeds.

The report clearly argues that something needs to be done to make arterial streets safer. I do not believe there is an easy solution. There are many players involved, business owners, commuters, residents, politicians, each with competing interests.

However, the one thing I hope we can all agree on is that the status quo is unacceptable. We need to start discussing how make these places safer because too many people are dying on arterial streets.