Who’s paying for transit expansion in Toronto?

Recently blogTO did a piece outlining the sources of funding for Toronto’s six active transit projects: the Spadina subway extension, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, the Georgetown South GO line improvements, the Union Pearson Express, the Sheppard East LRT and the Finch West LRT. It broke down as follows:

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You can find all the specific numbers here, but what is obvious is that the province is paying for most of this city’s transit expansion. Unfortunately though, it’s being done on an ad hoc basis. Toronto first asks for money and then the province decides whether or not it wants to give it.

This is problematic for a few reasons.

First, it’s an inconsistent funding stream. We all recognize the need for better transit and infrastructure in the city, but the big question is always: Who’s going to pay for it? So far, as we can see, it’s been the province. But that’s not always a sure thing. And it can often become political. If we’re going to get serious about building transit, Toronto needs a consistent funding source that would allow us to start building and not stop.

Second, how come, as one of the major economic engines in this country, we aren’t in a position to pay for our own infrastructure? It’s because our governance structure does not properly reflect the economic realities of today’s world: 

Most local governments are formed by a charter or act granted by the province or territory. Local governments are not mentioned in the Canadian Constitution other than to say they are responsibility of the provinces. Consequently, municipalities can be created, amalgamated, or disbanded at the whim of the provincial government which controls them. They are also limited in the amount of interaction they have with the federal government because this would infringe upon an area of provincial jurisdiction. Since each province is responsible for creating local governments in its own territory, the names, functions, and powers of local bodies vary widely across the country. Local governments generally have limited powers, namely creating local by-laws and taxation (property tax).

And yet cities, not provinces, are our biggest economic drivers. We have it backwards. And so I think it’s critical that we look long and hard at ways in which we can better equip our cities with the tools and resources to compete globally. Transit funding is just one example.

How inclusive are your public spaces?

I subscribe to a blog called Cities for People. It’s the blog of Gehl Architects out of Copenhagen and their focus—both the blog and the firm—-is on how the built environment affects people’s quality of life. They call themselves Urban Quality Consultants.

This morning, they wrote a post on gender mainstreaming in public spaces, which, I’m told, is top of mind in cities such as Copenhagen and Vienna.

The key insight was that, for a variety of reasons, men and boys seemed to be engaging with public spaces more than women and girls. For example, they found that boys were generally more assertive than girls and so, if there was a toss up between who was going to use a space, the boys would usually win out. As a result, there’s been a lot of debate around creating more inclusive public spaces, both from a design standpoint and a policy standpoint.

Interestingly enough, this is a debate that doesn’t seem to be happening here in Toronto. And I wonder if it’s because we don’t have the same problems (or I’m just oblivious) or if it’s because we don’t care enough about public spaces to do gender mapping exercises.

Every street can’t be everything to everyone

Yesterday I spoke about why Toronto shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss streetcars and light rail. Today, I’d like to talk about some of the hard decisions we need to face if we really want to get our city moving.

Toronto is a city of neighborhoods and small main streets—at least in the areas where our streetcars live. Streets such as King and Queen are only 4 lanes. And the problem we’re facing is that we’re trying to accommodate every single use case on them: cars, on-street parking, cyclists and streetcars. But in doing so, we’ve made the experience terrible for everybody. Streetcars move at a snail’s pace, drivers are frustrated by the lumbering streetcars, cyclists fear for their life driving by parked cars (doors can swing open at any time), and so on.

And with the rise of downtown shoulder neighborhoods such as Liberty Village, King West, the Distillery District and the soon to be complete West Don Lands, the strain on our east-west corridors is only going to get worse—much worse, in fact. Already the King streetcar is the busiest streetcar route in the city, moving almost 60,000 people per day. That’s more than the (under utilized) Sheppard subway line.

What I hope is clear to the ATC community though, is that the answer isn’t uniformly the car. We can’t have every single resident from Parkdale to Leslieville hopping into their car and driving downtown to their office at Yonge & King. It ain’t going to work. And so we’re going to need to make some difficult decisions about how we’re going to get our city moving on the backbone of transit.

Sure the downtown relief subway line (screw the politics I’m attaching it to downtown) would be the ideal solution to connecting our emerging shoulder neighborhoods, but that’s not going to happen overnight. And so how do we improve the efficiency of what we already have? First, we need to accept the fact that every street isn’t going to be everything to everyone at all times. We need to choose who we want to optimize for.

So here’s an idea that’s been floated many times before but never acted upon: let’s get rid of cars on King St and Queen St in the core during rush hour.

This would give our streetcars the room to efficiently move people across downtown, minimizing the dreaded “bunching up” that occurs as a result of traffic congestion. It would make transit a reliable choice and there are ways to pilot it. But let’s be clear: this is not about being anti-car. It’s about optimizing uses and getting people moving. Cars would continue to get priority on Richmond St and Adelaide St, and transit riders (as well cyclists) would get priority on King and Queen.

Of course, the Rob Ford viewpoint would say that we should be optimizing all streets for cars and getting the streetcars completely out of the way. But if that’s the approach we want to take, then we’re building the wrong kind of city. We shouldn’t be focused on intensifying and creating new inner city neighborhoods, because that only tips the scale in favor of transit. Instead, we should be focused on decentralization.

But that’s what not we’re doing. We’re intensifying our city to the point that we’re now faced with a number of difficult—yet enviable—decisions about how we’re going to live and how we’re going to move around in the future. We’re a city in transition.

Our mission here should be to figure out how to move people around the city as efficiently possible. Let’s put politics aside and recognize that time is one of our most precious resources. And when we put people in lumbering streetcars and debilitating traffic jams, we’re completely squandering that resource. It hurts productivity and it hurts our overall prosperity as a global city.

There’s a place for subways, streetcars, buses, bikes and cars in our city. So let’s just get on with making them all work.

All streetcars are not created equal

With Toronto preparing to deploy the first batch of its new streetcars this summer, there’s been a lot of talk about streetcars in general. Rob Ford has said he wants to get rid of them all together and I hear a lot of other people expressing similar frustrations: Streetcars are rolling stop signs. Streetcars block 2 lanes of traffic. Why don’t we just use more buses? Streetcars cause traffic. And so on.

So what should we do?

First, let me start by saying that buses suck. I’m a huge proponent of public transportation in cities, but there’s nothing quite like a rush hour bus ride to have you question your economic status in life. Bus routes have also been shown to have little economic development value, where as fixed rail lines (such as streetcar, LRT and subway) generally increase surrounding property values and spur investment.

Second, my view is that streetcars themselves as a transportation technology aren’t the problem. It’s our execution. I’ve touched on this topic before on ATC, but I’d like to reiterate a few points here. 

The value of light rail is that it’s a relatively inexpensive way (compared to subway) of efficiently moving a lot of people. But in order to do that, you need deploy it in a sensible way. In my mind, that primarily involves 3 things: giving streetcars their own dedicated lanes (grade separation), having a reasonable number of required stops, and streamlining the onboarding and off boarding process. Today, we don’t do a great job at most of these things (although our new streetcars will use a proof of payment model).

Take a look at this comparison between Dublin’s Luas light rail system and Toronto’s streetcar system. Both images are at the same scale. Notice the dramatically different stop spacing. Much of the Luas system also runs on its own dedicated lanes.

Dublin:

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Toronto:

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Every time a Toronto streetcar stops it generates waste. Cars are forced to stop behind it. Everyone on the streetcar has to sit and wait while somebody fumbles through their change looking for a token. But there are other ways to do this. There are ways to make light rail more subway-like, despite the fact that it may be above ground.  And so I don’t think we should be so quick to write off all streetcars.

New York YIMBY

Yesterday a friend of mine sent me this NY Times article covering a site called New York YIMBY.

I’ve spoken about the term YIMBY before and this site is exactly that: a site dedicated to “saying yes in my back yard” to new development in New York. It was founded by 23 year old Nikolai Fedak and currently receives 75,000 monthly visitors. He has plans to expand to other cities and I’ve already emailed him to see if he has any plans for a Toronto YIMBY.

At a time when it’s common to hate on developers and new developments, it’s refreshing to see a site dedicated to the exact opposite. That’s not to say that all developments are good (New York YIMBY has no problem blasting the ones that suck, as it should), but it’s certainly framing development as a positive thing for cities. 

In growing cities like New York and Toronto, development is going to happen. And so I would rather we focus on how to make it happen in the best way possible instead of just saying no.

Where marketing is at today

Two things happened yesterday. And since there’s a nice tie in, I’d like to talk about both of them.

First, here at TAS, we launched a new condominium project called Kingston&Co. We had already gone public with some information, but we now have an updated rendering and we’ve gone live with a public Q&A section on our website (kingstonandco.ca). The questions are all geared towards topics that we think are on a lot of people’s minds and anybody can respond. Instead of trying to cover up the elephant in the room, we wanted to do the opposite and get it out and into the open. It’s all about promoting greater transparency.

Second, I watched this 45-minute interview with author and entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk last night before going to bed. It’s a great video and I would encourage you to watch it if you have any interest in entrepreneurship, social media, marketing, capitalism and overall hustle. But if you don’t have the time, here are some of my key takeaways. Gary makes, on average, between $3-5 million a year selling the social media dream (but it could be more depending on things like his angel investments). Everybody is a media company first. He has clients putting 100% of their marketing dollars into social media and they’re seeing a ROI. It took him 1 1/2 years to get anybody to care about his video blog Wine Library TV. And don’t just ask. Give as well.

That last point is a tie in to his latest book called Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook. And what he’s effectively saying is that, as a brand, you need to be mostly giving to your customers (that’s the jab). It could be valuable content you produce via social media or whatever. It’s you, delivering value to your customers in some way. Then, once you’ve done that, you can go in for the right hook, which is the ask: Buy my stuff. The idea is that you build up trust with your customers and develop a relationship so that you get the privilege of asking them to give you money.

The alternative, of course, is what we’re all already familiar with: brands constantly bombarding people with right hooks. It’s the let’s throw a bunch of shit up against the wall and see what sticks approach. And it’s related to the whole permission marketing vs. interruption marketing debate popularized by marketer Seth Godin.

But Gary’s argument—and I found this really interesting—is that constant right hooks is the approach we had to take before the internet and things like social media. Those right hooks were so expensive to deliver through billboards, print ads, TV commercials and so on, that companies simply couldn’t afford to be delivering any jabs. But all that has changed with social media and technology. Now, the best brands succeed by building trust and establishing relationships with their customers—often one-by-one.

And this is exactly what we’re trying to do with Kingston&Co. We know that there’s a lot of discussion happening in the marketplace around condos and we didn’t want to ignore it. We wanted to address it. And if you look at our messaging, you’ll notice that in most cases we’ve put “Join the conversation” ahead of the typical “Register now.” That’s because we truly do want to have a conversation.

The business of cities

Over the past few months on this blog, I’ve started to introduce business terms into the way I describe and talk about cities. I’ve referred to residents and visitors as customers of a city, experiences within a city as products and services, and cities themselves as businesses. Until now though, I hadn’t explicitly talked about this parallel or fleshed it out in any sort of detail. But I think it’s an interesting one so I’d like to do a bit of that today.

The reason I started referencing cities with business terms is because I think it speaks to 3 important characteristics of cities. First, cities, just like businesses, are in direct competition with each other. We rank cities. We compare GDP per capita. And they fight, or at least should, to attract the best people and to achieve economic dominance.

Second, city prosperity can be ephemeral. We tend to think of cities as being quite permanent—centuries old—but history is littered with failed cities or cities that simply lost their economic importance (see Detroit). Consider this: The center of trade at one point was the Mediterranean Sea. Then, as the New World emerged, it shifted to the Atlantic. And now, one might argue that it’s moving over to the Pacific (and Asia). Either way, these macro shifts push certain cities to thrive and others to decline. The time horizon is longer than, say the rise and fall of Blackberry, but it’s similar nonetheless. Nothing is guaranteed.

Third, cities have become centers of lifestyle and consumption. That’s why I previously argued that any economic development strategy should consider lifestyle, and whether or not people actually want to live in the place. In business terms, you need to offer products and services that people actually want. You need to respond to customer needs.

And if you think of cities in this way, I think you’ll come to the conclusion that, just like businesses, strong cities require strong leadership and management. They need to ensure that they’re delivering the right products and services to their customers and that they’re staying ahead of the innovation curve.

The switching costs may be higher for cities compared to, again, something like a mobile phone, but that doesn’t mean people won’t eventually vote with their feet and leave for somewhere better.

Things that are quintessential

One of the things I think is important for cities to have are things that are quintessential. I’m talking about a quintessential behaviour, a quintessential experience, a quintessential accent, a quintessential architectural style, or whatever. I’m talking about the things that make people say: “Oh, that’s so New York.”

What I’m essentially talking about is brand equity for cities. For better or for worse, when somebody associates something with a particular city, you could argue that that city effectively owns a trademark. (Definition of trademark: “…a recognizable sign, design or expression which identifies products or services of a particular source from those of others.”) In this case, the source is a simply a city.

Sometimes these trademarks are an informal understanding amongst people in the know, but in other cases they can become quite legitimate. Take for example Chicago’s distinct architectural style known simply—at least within architectural circles—as the "Chicago School." This is a style that Chicago clearly owns. And if another city were to adopt it, people might say: “Hey, that building reminds me of Chicago.”

All of this is important because, just like companies, cities are increasingly in the position of having to compete for “customers” in a mobile and interconnected world. And if you ask some marketers, they’ll tell you (perhaps self-servingly) that brand is the most valuable asset a company has. But if you believe this to be at least somewhat true, then statements like, “Oh, that’s so (insert city name here)”, are actually pretty powerful.

Is there anything about your city that you could say is unequivocally yours?

The best city blogs around the world

This morning I’m super excited to announce that Architect This City has just been listed by the Guardian Cities UK as one of ‘The best city blogs around the world.’

There are some great and well known blogs on the list, including The Happy City by Charles Montgomery (Vancouver) and Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton—which went on to become a #1 NYT bestselling book. So it feels good for my fledgling ATC blog to be included.

A big thanks to the editor of the Urban Times for encouraging the folks over at the Guardian to include it and thanks to everyone who reads ATC. Happy Monday.

Culture in our society and economy

Last week I was reading the blog of James S. Russell, who used to be the architecture critic for Bloomberg News. He’s no longer the architecture critic, because Bloomberg got rid of his column:

My column, along with almost all cultural coverage, was eliminated at Bloomberg late last year in favor of a yet-to-be completed revamping that focuses on luxury and lifestyle. 

Obviously, the decision saddens me personally, but it’s also a regrettably powerful signal that culture doesn’t matter in our society and economy.

As someone who spent a great deal of time studying art, architecture and design, his post really resonated with me. This is a depressing thought. It may be hard to measure the ROI of the arts, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a return.

Ironically, Bloomberg—the former mayor of New York—understood this:

As Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, the company’s founder, championed arts as valuable to the vibrancy of the city and as a powerful force for economic development. The city has seen unprecedented growth in arts facilities, thanks both to his administration’s efforts and his personal philanthropy. His post-mayoral activities are intended to nurture cities as fields of wealth creation by helping them become cauldrons of innovation, which he recognizes is entwined with vibrant cultural and lifestyle trends.

That sounds about right.

Mies

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If you’re into architecture, specifically epic modernism, then I would encourage you to pick up this new monograph on Mies van der Rohe—simply called Mies. It was written by the late Detlef Mertins, who was the Chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania from 2002 to 2007, but is originally from Toronto.

Detlef was one of the most brilliant, but also nicest, people I’ve ever met and unquestionably the leading scholar on all things Mies. He passed away in the midst of working on this publication, but it was completed by his partner Keller Easterling—another powerful architecture mind—and a few other contributors.

For those of you unfamiliar with the work of Mies, here’s a brief description from the book publisher:

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe is one of the twentieth century’s most influential architects. His most well-known projects include the Barcelona Pavilion in Spain (1929); the Seagram Building in New York (1954-56); the Farnsworth House (1945-50), 860 and 880 Lakeshore Drive (1945-51) and the IIT Campus (1939-58), all in and around Chicago, and the New National Gallery in Berlin (1962-68). These are only a few of Mies’s pavilions, houses, skyscrapers and campuses, which all epitomized a radically new structural and spatial clarity. 

For readers in Toronto, Mies’s biggest contribution is the Toronto Dominion Centre, which is a beautiful example of the International Style. The complex was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act in 2003. But in addition to it being great architecture, its construction in the late 60s really coincided with Toronto’s rise as a modern metropolis. Here’s a photo of the first tower from blogTO.

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The TD Centre introduced not only a new architectural language into Toronto’s urban fabric, it also introduced a new and bolder way of how we thought of ourselves as a city. Remember this was a moment in time where Toronto was just about to overtake Montreal as the most populous city in Canada.

We were reimagining our city with Mies.

Why food trucks won’t destroy Toronto’s restaurant scene

Yesterday City Council voted 34 to 3 in favor of allowing more food trucks on the streets of Toronto (125 of them to be exact).

Food trucks will be allowed to roam and park in pay-and-display spots on city streets as well as in private lots. However, the total number of trucks can’t exceed 125; they’re not allowed to park for more than 3 hours in one spot; and they can’t park within 50 metres of a restaurant.

Most supporters of food trucks in this city are calling it a baby step forward. A lot of the reforms that they had been advocating for were not achieved with this vote. Frankly, I find it surprising how long this discussion has been going on for and how we’re still at the point of baby steps.

But perhaps even more surprising, is the fact that I agree with Rob Ford on this issue:

Mayor Rob Ford advocated for less regulation, arguing that people who make a date to go to a restaurant don’t change their mind and buy a hot dog when they pass a cart. “I think putting all this red tape around people, that’s not very friendly,” he said. “This is free enterprise. This is capitalism. Let them sell what they want and let the customer decide.”

The concern from the other side is that food carts are going to threaten Toronto’s restaurant industry and turn our streets into the wild west of food service—hence the 50m rule. But I actually think the opposite could end up proving to be true. I think food trucks could end up empowering entrepreneurs.

When I used to live in Philadelphia, which is a city with a thriving food truck scene (people publish food truck guides), I practically lived off the things. For breakfast I would go to this couple who barely spoke English and they would make me an egg and cheese sandwich for $2.50. And for lunch, I would go to the guy some people called the “nice little Mexican boy” for a burrito. It was somewhere around $5. And his food truck was so small that I had to duck while ordering food so I didn’t hit my head.

At first I actually found it odd to be consuming egg sandwiches and burritos from trucks that would pack up and leave at the end of the day. I kept thinking I was going to get sick. But I warmed to the idea and learned to love them. As does everybody else.

In fact, we loved our food trucks so much that when Renzo Piano—the Italian Pritzker Prize-winning architect—came to Penn to talk about how he had been retained to redesign the School of Design’s building, somebody stood up and asked: “How are you going to accommodate the food trucks in your design?” Renzo responded perfectly and said something along the lines of: “I’m Italian. Don’t worry, I will provide for the food.”

But my point of all this is to say that instead of looking at food trucks as a threat to our restaurant industry, we should be looking at them as a way to empower more entrepreneurs to take the risk on starting something for themselves—many of which could end up being new Canadians. The “nice little Mexican boy” also barely spoke English and looked young enough to be in high school. But he was a business owner.

Starting a restaurant is a risky proposition. You need to lease space, you need to buy equipment, and so on. And everybody knows the failure rate is high. But what if you could test that killer recipe of yours on a few hundred people at lunch in front of First Canadian Place? That sounds like a much easier proposition to me.

So what I hope happens is that people in Toronto start to see food trucks, not as a threat to our restaurant scene, but as an opportunity to get more entrepreneurs into it and make our city even more vibrant. Because if we do that, I’m positive we’ll end up with an even better restaurant scene than what we have today in our great city.

What will selling your home look like in 5 years?

Earlier today it was announced that Keith Rabois—a venture capitalist with Khosla Ventures and the former COO of Square—is working on a startup that hopes to make selling your home as easy as a few clicks. The codename for the project is Homerun.

“For most people, homes are their biggest asset and it’s completely illiquid,” Rabois said. “This is a really expensive transaction for many people. What we’re going to provide is instant certainty, liquidity and convenience for normal people to sell their homes.”

Rabois hasn’t shared many details, other than a pretty basic flow:

“I’m not going to describe the exact flow, but the general point is you’ll tell us what your address is and confirm your identity, then we’ll allow you to sell your home,” he said. “Obviously there’s a variety of ways you could verify your identity that we didn’t have in 2003, when I originally thought of this idea. Like Facebook Connect.”

This, of course, isn’t a new idea. Many companies have tried to improve the process of buying and selling homes by going online. But it’s a space that hasn’t seen a lot of innovation. I’m particularly interested because I work in real estate and it’s always struck me as a lumbering archaic industry.

So when a name like Keith Rabois announces that they’re working on solving a problem in this space, I get excited about what might come about.

Can the creation of urban destinations transform or hinder a city’s development?

I was recently asked by a Canadian architecture website called sixty7 Architecture Road to respond to the following: Can the creation of urban destinations transform or hinder a city’s development? It was for a regular Q+A series they do on their website. Here is my response (I was specifically asked about Dundas Square):

The best line I’ve ever heard about public spaces and urban destinations was from Bruce Kuwabara of KPMB Architects. He said that the outside of buildings need to be thought of as the inside walls of the public realm. And I think that’s a really great way of framing this discussion. We often think of buildings inwardly and as self contained objects, but by virtue of their existence we’re creating and framing many other spaces.

With that in mind, I absolutely believe that beautiful and well designed urban destinations–whether public or private–can transform a city and its development patterns. A perfect, but perhaps overused, example of this is the High Line in New York. Not only has it become a destination (“Have you been to the High Line yet?”), it has become an unbelievable city building catalyst. All of a sudden development is happening in, on and around the High Line, where as before developers would have tried to completely ignore it. And so today, the High Line, as an urban destination, is almost being continually reinvented by new development.

To talk specifically about Toronto, I think that downtown needed a “public” space like Dundas Square. The design could have been less unidirectional (towards the Eaton Centre) and the building to the north is repulsive, but it provided a forum along Toronto’s main street in the heart of downtown. I also believe that good urban destinations give areas a sense of identity, which is why I’m somewhat bothered by the loss of the square at Yonge & Eglinton. Sure it was bad, but we could have made it better. It is the heart of midtown in my mind.

So not only do urban destinations have the ability to transform, I would argue that they are essential to any great global city. Whether it’s the High Line in New York, the Spanish Steps in Rome, the old Love Park in Philadelphia, or Trafalgar Square in London, these spaces are integral to those city’s brands and identities. What do ours say about Toronto?

For the full Q+A, click here.

Core counties > outlying counties

Recent US Census Bureau data has once again confirmed that there’s a growing preference for living in urban cores. More specifically:

It finds that population growth has been shifting to the core counties of the USA’s 381 metro areas, especially since the economic recovery began gaining steam in 2010. Basically, the USA’s urban core is getting denser, while far-flung suburbs watch their growth dwindle.

To put numbers to these statements, core counties in the US grew approximately 2.7% and outlying counties grew approximately 1.9% from 2010-2013. Most of the growth came from net migration, as opposed to higher birth rates.

The two big factors at play—which will be obvious to readers of this blog—appear to be both a desire to live in amenity rich and walkable communities and a continuing trend towards marrying and having kids later in life, which can often be the trigger for moving to the suburbs.

But the big question is whether or not this trend is here to stay or if it’s an ephemeral fad caused by a bunch of over-educated and under-employed Millennials refusing to grow up. I would argue that it’s not a fad.

If there’s a clear consumer preference for urban neighborhoods, then I don’t think people are just going to pick up and leave overnight. As long as there’s adequate housing within the means of growing families, I think they’re going to stay in or go to the areas in which they truly want to live.

There are also many other macroeconomic trends reinforcing this shift. Just yesterday, Richard Florida wrote an article in Atlantic Cities talking about how venture capital investment is shifting away from the suburbs, towards city centers and walkable communities. These companies (receiving investment) are the next generation of employers and they’re starting in core areas.

I’ll take that as a leading indicator.