A city isn’t built in a day

The recent bus rapid transit debate in London Ontario has me playing SimCity 4 again. In Simcity, as in the real world, the fastest way to bankrupt a city is sprawl with large amounts of traffic friendly roads, highways and low density development zones. However, if you assume the car is a person’s last choice for transit and develop the city around any transit mode but the car the city doesn’t struggle with the burden of road maintenance and other services being sprawled inefficiently.

In the current city I’m building I have left space for the subway system to expand. A city of 17,000 people with a subway line, a rail line connecting to the region, a bus grid, and a commuter airport. Mass transit requires a dense population to be efficient, which is why I never use low density development zones, at least for residential. Before any new zones are added to my cities i wait until the demand has made the previous zones use their full density potential, then I put the transit system in before adding the new zones. I also ensure everyone is meters from a park or some other green space, even when at work.

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Using a grid system to develop a city is thousands of years old. When geography gets in the way the grid dead ends but the rest wraps around or flows where geography suits. Simcity being a game is easier to have a focused plan to build a grid, no competing interests can highjack the player’s city. The messy world we live in has NIMBY groups, speculative developers, warring ideological tribes, and short sighted leaders looking to the next election victory.

Cities have evolved for security and cooperation, walls were built to keep flood waters and attackers out, and to bring the wealth of the hinterland in. Very few cities evolved without having transportation to the surrounding region or the wider world. Cities were founded on rivers, harbours, crossroads, canals, rail junctions, and stops for resupplying the travelers. A city that allows itself to become isolated or resistant to change is only visited by archaeologists. A city must work within and regionally to plan for survival.

For a century North American cities planned for automobile transportation with anything else as an afterthought. Cities were pulled apart like stewed meat to force the network of wider roads and highways in. Low density zones sprawled across valuable farm land and nature areas to serve the car, despite city services being stretched thin and costing more. Some of the services, such as public transit, were sacrificed to keep taxes down. Most urban mass transit was kept, but as an afterthought or limited to pre-1940s growth zones.

The current aim for many cities is to densify core areas and use rapid transit as the main mode of transit through and between the densified areas. Having looked at a few plans for this I’ve noticed some are reactionary rush jobs to catch up to the cities that have been planning the city around transit and densification for a decade or two. Some have completely redone their old network to serve the new network, while others are just dropping the new technology on existing networks. The more successful ones will be the ones that have planned long term and redone their existing networks.

A long term plan for a city needs to be integrated with all services available when a new area is zoned or opened to redevelopment. I recently noticed the City of London might expand the growth zone without expanding the transit system to the existing edge of the growth zone. London is also building low cost or subsidised housing in an area that is one or two buses away from the main transit zone. This is either poor planning or a plan to keep poor people in cars. In the city pictured above you might notice a subway stop next to a bus stop in the middle of nowhere. When i do expand that city the transportation is already there for construction workers.

I recently read the article Sexism and the City which offers me some new ideas for Simcity and shows how hostile cities can be for vulnerable people. I’ve already realized keeping residential and commercial close together cuts the need for transit and parks are in every block. The Mr. Peas can’t touch Ms Potatoes approach of urban planning the last century has failed to benefit many members in society. When there isn’t a bus waiting when a train/plane unloads or any convenient connection between transit options it only benefits more car sales. Cities should stop assuming the connections aren’t needed and permit more flexible combinations of residential and commercial zones with integrated city services.

Short direct trips are better, even with a transfer or two, than long convoluted trips, this is the benefit of planning a grid system of transportation. Another benefit of public transit going to a grid or grid/hub hybrid is ridership can increase as in Houston.  Houston is one of those cities that wasn’t exactly planned to a grid originally yet they have created one for the transit system. Many US cities are further ahead in correcting the transit systems than Canada. The Canadian cities that are working to improve transit are the ones growing beyond the capacity cars can carry and are attracting the investment from higher governments and individuals.

Internal transportation for a city is useless without connections beyond city limits. Cities that are distant from their neighbours and major population centres need to show they are ready for more expensive transit options such as high speed rail. As mentioned above if existing intercity transit methods are disconnected or poorly connected it shows the city is unready or unwilling to have the new connections. Ontario has a plan to connect Toronto to cities to the west by GO Train and high speed rail. Other versions of the Ontario plan has high speed rail going directly to Windsor or even Detroit.

Cities that wish to be included in larger transit systems, such as high speed rail, should work with surrounding communities to develop a local transit system to increase potential usership and show potential visitors local travel is equally convenient to the high speed rail network. Cities that continue to focus on cars or fail to fight for inclusion in wider transit networks have only themselves to blame when population drops below the minimum required to fund current services without massive tax or user fee increases.

Cities need long term planning for connecting within and beyond themselves. It takes many election cycles to get a city ready for transformation, especially if special interest groups seek to block any or all changes. Transportation is a form of communication and if it is to succeed communication is required. Communication doesn’t mean talking a lot to people about how the new system benefits but listening to what is lacking and what needs to be improved. Pushing new transit or growth areas while neglecting current transit and areas is a good way to get animosity and push back.

As I read in the Houston case, and the Ontario Transit Guidelines, there needs to be a constant dialogue with the riders, the drivers, and the public at large. Houston found a local community came up with a better route proposal than the was offered, that proposed route was immediately tested. City planners or transit system planners do not have a monopoly on all the facts or expertise. Riders, employers, and drivers have far more information about frustrations caused by existing systems and ignoring these stakeholders leads to bad transit decisions. Even asking nonusers why they don’t use a system may show the flaws in the existing orthodoxy.

If a city wants improved public transit, cycle networks, or better pedestrian paths tomorrow then the city should have started planning twenty years ago. A plan that should have a city wide network and that doesn’t leave areas out. One last thing I’ve learnt from Simcity, if a road is congested don’t widen it to reduce congestion, stick a toll booth on it. I’ve had cities where the tolls and transit fares subsidise health and education.

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