The Mobile City:

Lanes, trains and autonomobiles

Canada has a mobility crisis – especially in our growing cities. While the past 30 years have witnessed enormous leaps in how we move information, our ability to move people is gridlocked.

We need transformative change when daily fenderbenders drain billions from our economy in lost productivity, and most of our informal interactions with strangers are at 140km/h while listening to audiobooks and podcasts.

The challenge of creating better urban mobility for Canadians has been accepted by a new generation of transit advocates from the University of Waterloo. To them, better mobility means getting the most out of new and old technology to deliver transit choices that integrate into our ever-more urban lifestyles.

“We as a species, are so ill-equipped for where we are now,” says Waterloo alumnus Leslie Woo (BES ’83, BArch ’84), chief planning and development officer at Metrolinx, the crown agency that manages and integrates road and public transport in the Golden Horseshoe region.

Leslie woo standing infront of a GO Train

Lauded by everyone from Canada’s Women’s Executive Network to Spacing Magazine, Woo is the mastermind behind The Big Move, a 25-year transit strategy transforming the way millions of people get around.

Since the ’50s, transit planning has largely been an exercise for engineers. “It was driven by the efficiency of moving machines, not optimally moving people,” says Woo of the car-oriented culture that emerged in the post-war boom. But as millions more drivers with varied schedules crowd onto the highways, the system faces gridlock. “We built one kind of transportation for one kind of person. Now the 401 is no longer functioning because we are more diverse and we live more diverse lives.”

Diverse people need diverse transit options

Rebecca Mayers (BA ’15, MA ’17), a Waterloo alumnus researching transit in Vancouver, is part of a growing movement of transit activists from Waterloo focusing on how diversity impacts transit. She studies the fairness with which transportation planning impacts everyone based on their social status, purchasing power, goals, age, gender, physical ability and many other factors.

“Here cyclists run the road; they influence politics and the infrastructure that gets created,” she says of Vancouver. But in Ontario, where Mayers grew up, cars are the dominant mode of urban travel. She won’t endorse the 401 as a sustainable way to get in and out of the city, but she understands the drivers who often have no choice but to use it.

Becca MayersHigher income earners who can afford housing in urban cores are able to use bikes and transit, but lower income working people are more dependent on their cars, she says. “There is a spatial mismatch, where increasingly lower income working people, new Canadians and people of colour are the ones pushed to the suburbs because of a housing affordability crisis and are relying on their cars.”

Jason Neudorf (MA ’14), another alumnus of Waterloo’s School of Planning, also spends a lot of his time analysing the transit choices people make.

He’s currently an accomplished senior transportation planner at the consultancy WSP and a frequent writer on what's known as new mobility – the convergence of old and new technologies with demographic changes, social dynamics and political factors.

“When people hear ‘new mobility,’ they think automated vehicles (AVs) and things like the hyperloop,” says Neudorf. “The key is harnessing such enormous potential and integrating it into frameworks that maximize the public good. Whether that’s ride-sharing, data-optimized traditional transit systems or a driverless Uber-style system, the critical thing is getting more people into fewer vehicles.” Metrolinx recently reminded riders that it’s also doing the job of getting more people into fewer vehicles.

In a cheeky viral video and tweet: “It’s like the self-driving car is already here. Read, sleep, watch and text. Experience. The Bus. From GO. The GO Bus.”

Some saw Metrolinx’s post as just a playful jab at automated vehicles, but message revealed an emerging consensus about our transit future — people want choices that fit their lifestyle.

“I think automated vehicles have great potential to help people in the suburbs who don’t have good transit options, or moving freight on long stretches of highway,” says Neudorf. “But in urban areas they may end up competing with existing transit. Most likely we’ll have our choice of transit mode — old or new — depending on where we’re going, what the weather is like, how long the commute is and at what time of day.”

Where there’s political will, there’s a way.

To integrate AVs into our lives, we’ll need careful coordination between private enterprise and government. “Otherwise, we might end up with a lot of pressure to make city streets more car-oriented rather than places where people feel comfortable walking, cycling, socializing or shopping,” says Neudorf.

But if people can travel great distances in automated vehicles without sacrificing comfort, it can actually have the effect of increasing urban sprawl, and that could set us back on a number of levels, Mayers explains.

“Growing out into the suburbs actually costs taxpayers way more money because of sewage, roads and other services,” she says. “Plus, it may have a net negative impact on the environment. Even electric vehicles still create significant emissions.”

Whether AVs compete with public transit, or are utilized for maximum public good, “is kind of the million-dollar question,” he says, “Do we have the political leadership to incorporate automatic vehicles in a way that benefits everyone equally?”

For Woo, this is actually a multi-billion dollar question. Her job is a riddle. What comes first, the political will to build transit infrastructure or the public will to give politicians licence to spend tax dollars on big projects? It’s hard to have one without the other.

Jason Neudorf on a bike“If there’s one thing we know, it’s that once a form of transportation fits into our lifestyles and business models, there’s resistance to change — people come out kicking and screaming,” says Neudorf.

Vancouver changed as much as any city in North America with almost overnight massive densification and high prices. People came out kicking and screaming as the city prioritized new forms of transit infrastructure. But as people started using trails, protected bike lanes and public transit as part of their lifestyle, it became entrenched in the city’s DNA.

In Ontario, public perception right now is that cars are still the convenient choice. Being stuck in traffic beats being stuck at a freezing bus stop.

But the enormous densification happening in Toronto is just the opportunity Woo needs to change that perception. As Ontario’s urban centres grow, she often finds herself encouraging people to see transit projects as more than just construction projects.

Comfortable and convenient transit means strategically building density close to transit infrastructure that’s “multimodal.” She wants people to move into units where transit is already the most convenient choice for lifestyles that are becoming less nine-to-five and point-A-to-B.

“When people take alternative modes of transit, we want them to transfer between modes seamlessly — without even thinking about it,” she explains. “Whether it’s from a taxi to a train, a train to a bike, from a Lyft to a bus, they’d all converge and you wouldn’t have to think about it. They would complement each other and not compete with each other.”

New mobility is fundamentally about giving people appealing options that encourage healthy bodies, a healthy planet and a healthy society. “What baffles me is that in an age when people are so health conscious, we so often prioritize the least healthy transportation choice,” says Neudorf.

New mobility is also about our mental health. “People are lonely,” Mayers says. “We’re social beings. In traffic you’re not starting a conversation, or seeing people’s faces and knowing that there are humans in this world to interact with and learn from.”

modes of transportation converging at an intersection