Barriers to implementation

Achieving agreement in principle on how best to accommodate travel demand in the region is much easier than actually taking policy and investment decisions that support such concepts as seamless travel, reduced car dependence, or sustainable development, largely because of barriers to significant change. Some of these are briefly discussed below.

An unlevel playing field

Many current land use and transportation policies tend to favour low density, auto-oriented land development and auto rather than transit usage. Development charges that favour low-density, single-family housing developments, property taxes that favour one municipality relative to another, and federal tax laws that provide deductions for automobile use but not for transit are examples of policies that skew decision-making in ways that may be counterproductive from a smart growth objective. Often such policies (such as federal tax laws) are motivated by issues other than the urban form-travel demand interaction. Convincing the agencies generating these policies that this interaction is also of importance and should be considered in the evaluation of the policy is typically difficult.

Differing needs

Central Ontario Zone municipalities differ considerably in characteristics and needs. A single policy does not usually fit all. This diversity in needs and appropriate options can be a serious barrier to action by provincial and federal governments, who are often unwilling or unable to act in cases where a universal solution or program can not be constructed or is not comprehensively supported.

Embedded biases and conflicting objectives

We live in a democratic, pluralistic society in which many different groups hold strong opinions about the "correct" course of action. While this is generally a healthy and desirable state of affairs, carried to an extreme, opinions can harden into inflexible biases that present significant barriers to decision-making and change. This can take many different forms, some of the more obvious of which include:

  • the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) phenomenon of citizen opposition to almost any form of change within a neighbourhood;
  • excessively strident single-issue groups who are often unrepresentative of a larger population and who are often willing to impose their issue on every initiative, regardless of its relevance to the matter at hand;
  • beggar-thy-neighbour attitudes among municipalities who see urban development as a zero-sum, us-versus-them contest (rather than the synergistic, "whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts" process that it truly is);
  • the lobbying and other activities of vested interests of all sorts that are motivated by narrow self-interest rather than any sense of broader social welfare.

Society tries to achieve many objectives. Any policy may have conflicting impacts with respect to a given set of objectives that makes determining the "best" course of action a genuinely difficult task. Indeed, this is precisely why city building and transportation system development are inherently political with respect to all important decisions - ultimately such trade-offs can be made only within the political arena. Combined, however, with the single-issue orientation of many participants in the process (who typically attach absolute weight to their objective and little or no weight to any other objective), as well as with the manipulations of issues by vested interests, such conflicts often are difficult to resolve.

Institutional constraints and priorities

Land development and the resultant patterns of travel demand transcend municipal and regional boundaries. Planning and decision-making concerning land use and transportation, as well as the provision of transit services, however, occur within individual municipal, regional and, sometimes, provincial agencies. As a result, the ability to match transportation supply to demand is often constrained by jurisdictional boundaries and responsibilities. In addition, the ability to plan development on a region-wide basis is similarly compromised in many cases, given that each municipality or region is responsible for planning within its own boundaries and, at present, no agency has authority to plan on a wider basis. The funding of urban transportation involves jurisdictional issues: the federal government has traditionally been absent, and the province downloaded responsibility for urban transit to municipalities in 1998.

In today's public-sector fiscal environment, the opportunity to invest heavily in transportation is also limited by competing demands from other sectors of society (most notably health care and education), and by the desire at all levels of government to hold the line or, preferably, reduce overall taxation. Building or rebuilding a smarter urban form will, however, require significant investment in both the transportation system and the built environment.

Reluctance to innovate

Well-established transit operating agencies, as well as road agencies, are typically reluctant to experiment with new methods of operation and service delivery. While demand has changed, the supply side often remains unaltered. Rather than focusing on how best to exploit advances in information technology (such as smart cards and camera-based enforcement of traffic regulations) or achieve higher priority for transit vehicles, political unacceptability is usually offered up as the main barrier to innovation. Alternative service delivery in low-density areas that could augment existing mainline services is a case in point. So also is more widespread application of proof-of-payment concepts that could reduce trip times and increase average transit speeds, as well as both vehicle and driver productivity.

Similarly, innovation is needed in residential and activity centre design, use of greenspace, and other elements of planning to accomplish mixed-use, "effective" densities and pedestrian- and transit-friendly neighbourhoods in a cost-effective, marketable manner. Many developers, however, are (understandably) conservative in nature and reluctant to deviate from the tried-and-true development patterns that have served their industry well for the past few decades. Also, planning requirements and processes and development charges often reinforce the status quo.

Finally, successfully moving away from current dysfunctional land use and transportation trends is undoubtedly going to take significant leadership and risk-taking on the part of municipal and provincial politicians. It is often argued that it is difficult for political leaders to take strong stands on issues that may bring long-term gain but that almost certainly will involve short-term controversy. City building, however, is inherently a long-term process. Vision, and the willingness to take risks and to lead an often balky electorate will all be required if a new, smarter growth pattern is to be achieved.

Political structure

Smart growth on a region-wide basis implies parallel region-wide decision making, integration, and coordination. As an arm of the provincial government,29 for example, GO Transit has been better able to deal with cross-boundary travel than municipally owned transit agencies. Integrating transportation planning, however, has typically been found to be an easier challenge than integrating land use planning across municipal or even local community boundaries.30

Municipal elected officials are responsible to constituencies that are small in comparison to the Central Ontario Zone, and it is unrealistic to expect them to readily accept planning guidelines and controls superimposed by any form of supra-agency. Otherwise, for example, there would already be an integrated region-wide transit system. In addition, even with more broadly based land use and transportation planning, equity in the incidence of costs and benefits among varied communities is not easily achieved. As a result, there are numerous examples of opposition to "broad picture" decisions, starting with the first amalgamation of Metropolitan Toronto in 1953, through the establishment of regional governments elsewhere within the GTA, to the recent amalgamation of the new cities of Toronto and Hamilton, and the establishment and later abolition of the Greater Toronto Services Board.

Thus, probably the single most important barrier to implementation of new planning and transportation strategies derives from a general unwillingness to relinquish control, unless doing so is tied to new and generous sources of revenue that filter through to the local level.

29. Except during the short interregnum of the GTSB.
30. This was true even for the former Metropolitan Toronto, in which transportation planning was more effectively integrated than land use planning, the real control of which, to a large extent, resided with the local area municipalities.