Shift: An Important Discussion/Shaping London's Future

Historically the street was a place to meet with our neighbours. They were the places where we celebrated our victories and shared our collective losses. Streets helped to define a city’s culture and identity, and shaped how they grew.

If streets shape neighbourhoods then our mode of transportation shapes the streets.

Sometime in the last century we gave up our claim to walking through our neighbourhoods in exchange for walking through shopping malls and big box stores. This shift was led by the popularity of the automobile and its need for an ever increasing supply of roads and parking spaces. The streets were no longer a safe inviting place for people, and predictably people sought out alternative spaces to gather. The result of this shift is the costly urban sprawl that afflicts most North American cities today, and London is no exception.

Over the past few decades urban planners have attempted to curb the growth of sprawl while still recognizing the need for people to move and interact within the spaces they share. They began to understand that building roads for single occupancy vehicles was too costly and ultimately unsustainable.  The solution they’ve re-discovered is to focus on great neighbourhoods connected by great public transit. New York, San Francisco, and London England are all considered world class cities with distinct neighbourhoods, and great public transit systems. From Wortley Village to SoHo, and from The Old East Village to Hyde Park, London already has great neighbourhoods, we simply need to connect them with great public transit.

Recognizing the importance of developing a great transit system, the City of London is undertaking a project that will dramatically change the way we not only move, but also how we interact with each other.  This project will finally bring rapid public transit to our forest city. Dubbed Shift, the City is currently seeking input on the preferred type of rapid transit and how it will impact the lives of its citizens.

Opportunities to directly shape the future of a city do not occur often. In London, we’ve been fortunate to have more than a few of these opportunities in recent years. Through Re-think London we’ve shared our visions for the future of our community and seen those visions reflected in the draft Official Plan for the city: The London Plan.

Now we have Shift. This public engagement exercise provides Londoners with another prime opportunity to speak up and share their vision – this time looking at how Rapid Transit should take shape the future and shape London.

This is an important step in determining the attractiveness and prosperity of London’s future.

Shift is about more than just deciding where London’s rapid transit corridor should be, it’s also about place making. Wherever the rapid transit corridor is built, important development will follow. Proof of this can be found in our neighbouring cities of Kitchener and Hamilton where their Rapid Transit system is “streets ahead” of our own.

Kitchener-Waterloo is moving forward with a Light Rail Transit system, and is outpacing the region in economic development. Hamilton is also developing a Light Rail Transit system with the full support of the Ontario Government.

Kitchener has already seen businesses clustering around future transit villages. The result is the creation of space that is attractive to companies seeking to set up in the city. When the Corporate Learning Business, Axoniify, decided to locate its headquarters within walking distance to a future LRT station, president and CEO, Carol Leaman stated:

“It was important for me, from a business point of view, to see that we’re close to mass transit and the LRT station is one piece of that.”

Clustering isn’t the only benefit of rapid transit. Rapid Transit is a proven economic development tool.

With a functioning rapid transit system we can capitalize on the province’s proposed High Speed Rail from Toronto to London, as well as the expanding Airport service. Combined with a high speed muni-fibre system, affordable property values, and world class education facilities, London will have all the ingredients needed to attract business and talent.

A research paper published in Urban Studies found that the economic value of a 10% increase in transit seats or rail service miles could be worth anywhere from $1.5 million to $1.8 billion a year to a city depending on the city’s size. That value is higher for cities with an existing transit system that is at or near capacity. The LTC’s Business case for BRT found that every $1 spent on rapid transit provides a return of $1.80 in economic activity. The business case also highlights the creation of 3,500 jobs during the construction of a rapid transit system, with an additional 100 permanently created once the system is completed.

Debates over a BRT or LRT system have taken place in other communities, and it would be wise to review those discussions before settling on the final option. For example, in an article by Urbancity they report that although a BRT has less capital cost to build than an LRT, the operating costs of an LRT are much less. Contrast that with a 2013 article by Forbes Magazine in which Jeff McMahon argues that a BRT can leverage more (development) investment than LRT. The choice between LRT and BRT is not an easy one to make, but it will have long term effects on London’s development and its economy.

Sometimes a decision is so big that you need as much input as you can get and that s why your participation in Shift is so critical. Add your thoughts and ideas through the Shift website. After all, this decision will impact the lives of every Londoner for the next twenty years.

If London is to remain competitive then we must acknowledge that the time for Rapid Transit is now.


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