The Transit Option

Recently on the Mayor’s weekly bit on Tuesday morning radio the Mayor made reference to his objective of having 35,000 (sometimes he only wants 10,000. Consistency?) people living in downtown Saskatoon. The radio host asked the Mayor if we really need to replace the Traffic bridge. There were guffaws all around when Brent Loucks suggested “bicycles” as a means of transportation. Such is the attitude of the Mayor and the Conservative Party / Saskatchewan Party radio shills what passes for “news” radio in this city.

The reality is, that is exactly the type of people you want to attract to the downtown area. People who live and work in the downtown, or live downtown and commute to work outside of the downtown via foot, bicycle, or by reliable, convenient and efficient public transit. Something we don’t have in Saskatoon as Hilary Nelson at OurYXE points out. The last thing you want is 35,000 people living in the downtown all trying to commute by car to areas outside the downtown. You want to attract (and retain) people who either don’t own cars or a car is a only an occasional mode of transport.

You do this by building a city’s transportation infrastructure so that pedestrian, cycling and public transit are not just viable options, but preferred options. Then car ownership becomes highly optional. Even inconvenient. If you don’t want to own a car you can actually live life without one with minimal impact on ones lifestyle. If you need a car occasionally, then renting, taxi’s, or (prepare for John Gormley’s head to explode) car sharing is an option. In New York City more than half of all households don’t own a car. In Manhattan that rate is 75%. There are millions of New Yorkers who not only live their entire lives without a car, but the thought of owning one, let alone “needing” one never even crosses their minds.

Jordan Cooper over at Our YXE gives you an idea of what 10,000 people living in the downtown would look like. I don’t think the Mayor, or anyone else promoting this kind of density has really thought this through all that well. If they had they would realize that there needs to be significant investment in public transit. That’s right, investment. The Mayor, City Council, and the public at large need to stop thinking and referring to transit funding as a “subsidy”. They never refer to building roads & bridges as “subsidies” for automobiles. And automobile drivers (the anti-public transit anti-cyclist ones anyway) need to start recognizing that more people using public transit is good for them too. Which would you prefer? Being stuck in traffic with 4000 other cars, or sharing the road with 100 buses? This gif illustrates the point.

Imagine if even half of those 10,000 people owned cars. Where would they all park? I don’t see how that many vehicle could be accommodated. Even for people who own a car and only use it on an occasional basis. It would require a significant increase in above ground parking structures or underground parking. The cost to build these would be significant, and considering the amount of whining and complaining I hear from people who work downtown (as do I) and commute by car (which I don’t) about the $100-$150 per month cost of renting a monthly parking spot I doubt there will be much appetite or acceptance of parking that could easily cost five or ten times as much. There is a reason why parking in big, dense cities often costs as much as renting an apartment or a mortgage payment.

Land is expensive, and using it to park cars isn’t particularly a good use of it. Developers want to maximize their profits and building offices and high density residential is simply more profitable than building parking. The high cost of parking then adds to the already high cost of owning and operating a car. People will bear this cost only so far, and the more options they have for non-car transportation and the more affordable it is, the easier it is to go car-less. The money they would have spent on a car will get redirected, increasing the funds available for housing, discretionary spending at local businesses, retirement savings, and elsewhere.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I oppose increasing the number of people living in the downtown, because I don’t. But we need to be realistic about what it will take to get 10,000 or 35,000 people living downtown. They need more than just residential buildings. They need more than a downtown grocery store. They need transportation. They need non-car transportation that is the preferred option. Not just an option. Not just a viable option. The preferred option.

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2 thoughts on “The Transit Option

  1. Joanne

    I don’t believe Saskatoon will ever have decent transit. I moved here from Toronto in 04/05, and spent the first 7 years living in Nutana (I teach at UofS) and walking, biking and taking transit. I’d spent the previous 15 years living without a car in the heart of the country’s biggest city; I’d even let my license lapse, since I just didn’t need it.

    Saskatoon, without a car, was a disaster and a misery — biking was impossible for much of the year, walking was difficult and treacherous because people simply didn’t clear the sidewalks, and the transit was the worst I’d ever experienced. “Frequent service” was once every half hour; standard service was hourly; buses frequently didn’t come at all and even more frequently didn’t stop. I discovered that when that happened it made far more sense to walk to my destination, no matter how far, than to wait for the next bus. Buying groceries could easily take 3 hours travel time. I walked. A lot. Enough to discover how long it takes to walk to Confederation from the East side (about an hour and 20 minutes).

    Living like this was miserable. Nutana was nice, and Broadway lovely, but trying to get anywhere besides the tiny commercial stretch between the river and 8th was impossible, and when I moved to another neighborhood things became impossible. I’ve never hated a place so much as I hated Saskatoon. I left every summer as quickly as I could, just to get away from the place.

    Buying a car and driving again was a revelation. It’s possible to drive from one side of the city to another in the time that I’d spend waiting for a bus. I can do my shopping in a morning. I’ve stopped hating the place, and I’ve actually bought a house.

    The city is entirely set up for cars, and the attitude of most people is that anyone who can’t drive or can’t afford a car doesn’t deserve to go anywhere. The bad transit seems deliberate, a way of ensuring that kids, the elderly and the poor can’t move freely about the city. It’s designed to be so bad that no-one except the carless will ever use it. In other words, it’s a feature, not a bug.

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  2. Pingback: Downtown Density | yxesimonsays

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