Playing urban and suburban/rural resentments against each other has been an ugly, noisy, harmful distraction from our common interest in thriving communities of all kinds.
By Ryan McGreal
Published June 01, 2016
As we reach the midpoint of the current Ontario government, thoughts turn naturally toward the 2018 provincial election and how the outcome of that election might look.
The Liberal Party is currently riding low in the polls after winning a surprise majority in 2014. There is an opportunity for the Progressive Conservative Party and its new leader, Patrick Brown, to present a viable alternative for voters. Indeed, in many ways the 2018 election will be Brown's to lose.
Of course, the 2014 election was former PC leader Tim Hudak's to lose, and lose it he did.
Misreading the public's appetite for new public investment after years of cuts and austerity, the party came out with a "Million Jobs Plan" based on reducing Ontario's corporate tax rate to the lowest level in North America and eliminating 100,000 public sector jobs.
The plan was widely panned, not only by unions and progressives but also by economists from across the political spectrum, who pointed out the basic math error of counting eight person-years of employment as eight jobs.
Ontario voters were still wary about another right-wing Mike Harris-style government (Hudak had spent two years promising to make Ontario a "right-to-work" jurisdiction before backpedalling in early 2014). Yet they were also unimpressed by the Ontario NDP's platform, which came late and appeared slapped together at the last minute.
Rejecting both alternatives, Ontario voters handed the Liberals a majority mandate on their 2014 Budget plan, which the opposition parties had just defeated in a confidence vote, triggering the election in the first place.
That budget was big on infrastructure spending, and particularly transportation infrastructure, which Ontario had systematically neglected since the 1990s. Its centrepiece was the Regional Transportation Plan for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, a 25-year plan to knit the GTHA together with intracity rapid transit connected to regional express rail.
In Hamilton, that plan entails a light rail transit (LRT) line running east-west between McMaster University and Queenston Traffic Circle with a north-south connection to the new West Harbour GO Station, expanded GO service to a new Centennial Parkway station in Stoney Creek and a future north-south rapid transit line connecting the waterfront to the airport.
Notwithstanding Council's current bout of nervousness about the LRT plan that it has consistently supported over dozens of votes since 2008, the project has a tight timeline. The goal is to get a detailed design completed and approved by 2017 so it can go out to tender for a consortium to build it. The contract will be signed in 2018 and construction will start in 2019.
In the last provincial election, the PC Party took a clear position against the LRT plan. There is fear even now that if the City and Province do not get a contract signed before the 2018 election, a PC win might mean the project gets killed before it ever gets a chance to breathe new life and energy into some of the city's most vulnerable neighbourhoods.
Interestingly, in the last Provincial election, Liberal candidates running to represent the Hamilton East-Stoney Creek and Hamilton Mountain ridings ran on anti-LRT campaigns that went against their own party's platform. They both lost to NDP candidates who favoured LRT - and in the two ridings where LRT support is considered weakest.
I don't mean to suggest that they lost because they opposed LRT, but that their opposition, calculated to tap into imagined anti-urban resentment, did not work for them.
Hamilton is a city still figuring out how to reinvent itself after the historic decline of its once-robust manufacturing industry. Over the past two decades our economy has diversified considerably, and several neighbourhoods that were recently being written off as beyond help are now enjoying an exciting resurgence.
Some of this is driven by comparatively low property values, but that is only part of the story. The other part is that Hamilton is a city - a place with a distinctly urban form, buildings that have character, streets that behave as public spaces and not merely as conduits for automobile traffic, and a transportation system that provides a variety of choices in how to get around.
Paul Graham, the famous American tech venture capitalist, made this point in a talk he gave about Pittsburgh's prospects for establishing a local startup economy: "What's special about Pittsburgh is not that it's cheap, but that it's a cheap place you'd actually want to live." I would argue that this applies to Hamilton as well.
Cities have always been the main engines of economic development. The essential urban economies of scale, agglomeration, density, association and extension reduce costs, increase margins, accelerate innovation, drive growth and generate wealth.
As economist Edward Glaeser put it in his book Triumph of the City, "Cities are the absence of physical space between people and companies. They are proximity, density, closeness. They enable us to work and play together, and their success depends on the demand for physical connection."
With supportive land use and transportation policies in place, investment in LRT attracts new transit-oriented developments (TOD) that increase the density and diversity of land use around the LRT line, boosting economic development and increasing the effectiveness of the essential urban economies.
A recent study [PDF] by the McMaster Institute of Transportation and Logistics notes the mutually-reinforcing benefits of TOD:
Higher levels of population and employment densities around stations create a larger market for transit ridership, which can increase farebox revenue and balance flows on a transit network. Mixing of land uses also increases the potential for interaction between trip origins and destinations, and pedestrian-friendly 'Complete Street' urban design facilitates increased walking trips to and from the transit station and other local amenities (Higgins & Ferguson, 2012).
In terms of travel behaviour outcomes, implementations of TOD have been shown to result in increased transit ridership and reduced automobile dependence as well as higher levels of internal trip capture rates around transit stations compared to traditional automobile-oriented suburban developments (Ewing et al., 2011).
Furthermore, Complete Streets have been shown to increase walking and cycling (Pucher et al., 2011) and have even been associated with greater levels of economic development (Ferguson et al., 2015). More active transportation choices can promote healthier lifestyles and reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. Such benefits can also be self-reinforcing, as a network of TODs can create more opportunities for interaction along a transit system and potentially reduce the need for a private automobile.
Finally, TOD has been shown to be particularly appealing for certain segments of the population, namely those in the baby-boomer cohort and their children (Cervero et al., 2004; Dittmar et al., 2004), a group Foot (1998) refers to as the 'echo boomers'.
The study concludes: "This policy and planning framework is essential for helping the region to grow in a way that is more environmentally sustainable, socially equitable, and economically prosperous."
It would seem to be obvious that a political party that stands for a competitive economy should also stand for cities. Yet for more than two decades, the Progressive Conservative Party has positioned itself as a anti-urban party, hostile to the values and interests of people living in cities.
I cannot imagine any PC leader in recent memory taking a principled stance in the vein of Premier William Davis in 1971, when he decided against a plan that would have destroyed what are now some of the most valuable urban neighbourhoods in the country:
If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop.
The Party's current hostility to people living in cities is a major drag on its ability to build a winning coalition.
Ontario needs its cities to thrive in order to thrive as a province. It needs the essential urban economies working at their full potential to create new businesses, attract new investments and generate new employment opportunities.
We need parties and leaders who understand what cities need to thrive. Playing urban and suburban/rural resentments against each other has been an ugly, noisy, harmful distraction from our common interest in thriving communities of all kinds.
Indeed, urban neighbourhoods feel and behave much like small towns, providing a variety of amenities and services in close proximity, where people know their neighbours and look out for each other. The so-called "new urbanism" movement is really a movement back toward traditional neighbourhoods.
The Progressive Conservative Party has an opportunity to reassert the "Progressive" part of its name and its history, and move past the divisive, zero-sum identity politics of the past two decades.
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