May 4, 2016

Aspirational urbanism.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future, recently. It’s normal, I think, to think about the future when you’re in a period of transition: when you’re caught in the in-between, you try and figure out the present by dreaming about the future.

The idea of planning for the future is not just an individual pursuit; inherent to the success of any organizations, public or private, is the ability to see what’s ahead and plan for that eventuality. Government, at its core, is about making sure needs are met in the present while making sure the foundation is solid for whatever the future may bring.

That’s why I’ve found the discussion over rapid transit in London so fascinating. The Shift London project posits that London needs rapid transit to accommodate growth—that, in itself, is good future thinking—but recent developments have left questions over what that rapid transit should look like.

The discussion has come down to a simple question: do we make plans for the kind of city we are, or for the kind of city that we want to be?

It’s a deeply personal question, too: as I’ve been navigating this period of life transition (new city, new home, in-between employment), I’ve been grappling with decisions that have made me wonder what kind of Sameer Vasta I want to be, and not just who Sameer Vasta is, right now.

Tonight, I attended a Pints and Politics session where we discussed the future of rapid transit in London, and there, I shared a little story that I’d like to share here. The details of the story are fuzzy, so I apologize in advance if I get some of the smaller facts wrong, but overall, it’s an important tale about thinking about the future and thinking about aspirational urbanism.

In 1910, R.C Harris designed and presented plans for a viaduct connecting the west side and east side of Toronto, across the Don River, along Bloor Street. The plans included not only a bridge deck to accommodate trams, buggies, and cars, but also a lower deck for rail transport, something that was non-existent at the time and added significant cost to the project.

Harris’ vision for adding a rail deck to the viaduct wasn’t about the Toronto he saw around him in 1910, but instead for the Toronto he hoped to be building for the future. He saw a future where Toronto would grow, and where rail transport could connect the currently-divided city, encouraging human and economic mobility. His plans reflected the Toronto we wanted to create, the city he wanted to be.

Unsurprisingly, the plans for the viaduct were rejected by referenda, every year until 1913. Even then, when the project was approved, the lower deck was controversial, and actual costs ended up being higher than the projected ones.

In 1966, when the Toronto Transit Commission finished the Bloor-Danforth Subway line connecting the city from west end to east end, they saved millions of dollars because of the existence of the lower deck of the Prince Edward Viaduct. Harris’ vision for the city he wanted Toronto to be had come to pass: the Don River no longer separated the city, and his massive infrastructure project, fifty years earlier, had paved the way for that vision to become reality.

I have no idea whether bus rapid transit or light rail is a better decision for London in the current fiscal reality, but I do know that the new business case that advocates for BRT instead of the hybrid model is missing something important: it has no recognition that building transportation infrastructure needs to be aspirational.

The new business case is grounded in building transit that reflects the city that we are, the London of 2016. It may be the best option for London’s future—while I have an inherent bias for LRT or the hybrid model, I’m not an expert on infrastructure or London’s fiscal reality—but it needs to do a better job of saying why it is.

At the moment, the new business case for rapid transit in London would disappoint R.C Harris; the business case talks about the London that we are now, and creates plans for today, instead of talking about the London we want to be, and taking action to get us to that vision. Whether or not that action requires BRT or LRT is beyond my expertise, but I do know that in order for this city to grow, to build upon the great potential that it has, we need to stop thinking about who are, and start asking who we want to be.

I’m asking myself the same questions, in my personal life, every day. Who do I want to be? What am I doing now to make that vision a possibility? It’s time that our city leaders start asking those questions, too.