As of writing this column, I’ve gone through the YouTube rabbit hole of European and Asian public transportation. I’ve come to realize the benefits and possibilities of the wide methods of transportation that other countries use. And have realized the excruciating car-dependent cities that North America has subjected itself to.
Buses, trains, metro systems, inter-city rail, high-speed rail, and pedestrian-friendly urban design are the future of building low-emission, sustainable, and thriving cities to live in. The car-centric cities that have come to define much of North America will eventually be a relic of the past. The future relies on dense cities that home diverse modes of transportation like biking, walking, and public transportation.
Watching YouTube channels like NotJustBikes, Alan Fischer, and RMTransit has opened my mind to what is possible with proper public transportation and urban city design. ‘NotJustBikes’ focuses his time on showing off the city of Amsterdam, the best city in the world for biking.
In Amsterdam, people bike to work, to school, for visits, they bike for groceries, they bike to their universities, and they bike to virtually any place that we North Americans would usually do by car.
This revelation on the possibilities of bikeable cities blew my mind. It made me question the very ways our North American urban design that we’ve perpetuated for the past century. Questions like ‘why are our homes so big and spacious?’, ‘why do we conduct grocery once every week in bulk rather than every few days?’, ‘why is so much space allocated to parking lots and cars?’, ‘why is bicycle infrastructure not commonplace everywhere?’, and most of all - ‘why is everything so far apart?’.
In my estimation, centering our city infrastructure around the car has led to massive amounts of the distance between our homes, stores, services, and entertainment. This has basically led North Americans to be compelled to drive. Since otherwise, biking 20-30km to work or 5km to the grocery store is unfeasible for the average North American. This reality is not the case in places like Amsterdam, where a car is not a necessity for travel. A place where biking can complete most tasks that people in North America use a car to do.
Actively observing our cities can make us realize how much space is dedicated to the car. Highways, 3-lane roads, small sidewalks, streetlights every 2 minutes, massive parking lots, roads that act as streets, the list goes on. It made me realize that less space is dedicated to pedestrians compared to cars! Not to mention bikes or trains.
Some may argue that our roads are large, and our cities are big because of car safety. I think this argument is bogus, cars are dangerous. You are statistically more likely to die driving a car than in an airplane, train, bike, or just simply walking outside. Cars are notoriously risky to drive since they can injure and kill so easily due to their weight and speed.
It’s very frustrating to see the continuation of unsustainable suburban sprawl in North America. When it’s proven that suburban homes are objectively worse for the environment and produce more carbon emissions compared to people who live in denser city areas.
On top of that, suburban families are forced to drive because their homes are so far away from city centres where essential commerce takes place. In all metrics, suburban sprawl and car dependency is not sustainable or even ergonomic way to design our cities. Frankly, it’s not just anti-ergonomic; seeing the same massive roads and asphalt across North American suburbia is just plain ugly and depressing to look at.
What we need is a transformation of our cities to take bikeabiltiy, walkability, and public
transportations seriously. Bikes, walking, and public transport must be as commonplace if not more commonplace as our usage of cars.
Furthermore, our urban planning around homes specifically needs to be focused on more density so that commerce is closer to people.
And if we ever have a shot at solving the housing crisis (be it anywhere in the world), then building more homes in a denser area is more effective in building supply and stabilising prices than building massive single-family homes thinly across wide geography as we’ve done for the past 50 years.
In my home country of Canada, most of our cities and towns are car-centric and suburban in design. But that isn’t to say that some improvements aren’t coming our way within this decade. More investments in public transportation, more bicycle infrastructure in our largest cities like Toronto and Vancouver, a new program by the federal government to provide permanent funding for public transportation, and most importantly - young people and local advocates demanding change in the way we design our cities for a more sustainable future.
Obviously, biking is not a feasible means of transport for places that are medium to long distances away. For this, we’ve all assumed the car to be the best mode of transportation. And for a lot of instances, cars can be a great way to travel when we want to get to a destination quickly. Other instances where cars are great are for carrying baggage, going to vacation, or just going for a family outing.
But for individuals who are purchasing whole cars just to be sole drivers in them for their daily commute is a horrible and inefficient way of transportation both environmentally and for congestion.
The busiest highways of North America are great examples of this. Thousands upon thousands of cars travelling in a relatively straight line just to exit some dozen kilometres away to work is very inefficient when you think about it. Why can’t these trips be made via an extensive train network across cities? Inter-city rail and intra-city rail is already standard in China and Japan. Where trains are the best and most efficient way to get around inside and between cities in a smaller amount of time than a car would take.
The Chinese and Japanese are excellent at building rail networks in their cities. As a result, their transportation and per capita emissions are less per capita than their Canadian or American counterparts. And they’re able to get to their destinations faster than us too because of how consistent the speeds of trains are over a route compared to cars.
Even more, the Chinese and Japanese are healthier as a result because of their mass public transport use. They spend more time walking each day in their commute than sitting down in a car.
Even freight is standardized to be delivered on trucks. One freight container is delivered across the countries and across the border by one driver. Much of this freight could instead be delivered by diesel-powered trains that are able to carry hundreds of freight containers across the country in one trip. Labour costs and redundancy costs would be alleviated with this. And although this is already done with companies like CN rail, this could be utilized further to its maximum potential to help alleviate current supply chain issues and get rid of the ugliness of truck deliveries on the road.
All of this requires a national vision with rail construction across the country. Be it for usage by citizens for travel or economic purposes for freight.
Not all hope is lost though. In Ontario, significant progress is underway in the form of intercity rail travel through the GO Expansion project. The GO Expansion project includes mass electrification of the current GO train network that goes from Toronto’s union station to cities like Barrie, Brampton, Kitchener, Hamilton, Milton, and the lakeshore cities of Burlington and Oshawa.
The project includes transforming the current network of diesel-powered trains into fully electric low emission trains. The plan also includes substantially increasing the speeds and frequencies of the rail network so that trips between cities can be taken with reliability, consistency, and timeliness. For instance, the GO expansion project would make a Brampton to Toronto trip be completed in 20 minutes flat. For comparison, a drive from Brampton to Toronto can take upward of an hour if not more when considering traffic levels.
No traffic, no waiting on the highway during crunch hours, and most importantly no costs on gas, insurance, or any other car expense. The GO expansion project will allow short timely trips across the Greater Toronto Area with low-emission electric trains that are more comfortable to ride and much more affordable compared to cars. You can apply this idea to other major cities in Canada like Vancouver and Montreal.
Therefore, the future of travel (within Ontario at least but can be applied elsewhere in Canada and the US) is a network of trains that connect the major suburban cities like in the GTA directly to Toronto. This allows for lower commute times, and lower emissions, and offers a comfortable ride that doesn’t eat into the mental/physical health of people that drive every day.
Walkable cities are very important to the core of how cities should be designed. Walkability is the ability, ease, and comfortability to walk to commerce, general services, public services, transportation, food, or anything that someone may need in their day-to-day lives.
Walkability is the single most important factor in city design. People should not be forced to use a car (or any other means of transport) to get the essential things they need to live like groceries, going to work, exercise, entertainment, etc. In North America, the reality in much of our cities is that owning a car is essential to living. Without a car, your commute time to school or work will be higher because there isn’t adequate public transportation or walkability, you cannot do groceries without a car due to how our commercial zoning laws are set up, and you cannot do basic things like cutting your hair, fetching errands, or going to the movies without turning on your car just to travel 15 minutes away.
When observing the streets every day, I feel a mass dread about our city design. Our cities are designed for cars, not people.
But not all hope is lost. We can see still see a semblance of walkability in our downtowns and old city areas. These exist in every major city in Canada and the US, where people living in downtown or old towns are a single walk away from getting the things they need (see here).
New graduates in urban planning and young people from colleges and universities are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of walkability. The benefits that walkability has on quality of life, lowering carbon emissions, and improving city design are substantial. Advocates like me understand and advocate for that.
Young people understand the effects that the automobile has had on their towns, cities, and the world. Change is required, and that change comes with a generational effort in challenging and acting on the way we want to live in our cities; sustainably, pridefully, and with dignity and happiness.
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