Urban Design and Transit

A lesson in approach and avoidance.
Words by Michael Spaziani

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1951

I have often wondered why we had to study Psychology 101 in university when pursuing an architecture degree. After three and a half decades, I’ve finally figured it out because I can now apply one of the fundamental tendencies of human behaviour to a real current issue: the state of transit funding in Mississauga today.

That psychological tendency? Approach-avoidance conflict, defined in Mosby’s Medical Dictionary as “a conflict resulting from the presence of a single goal or desire that is both desirable and undesirable.”

That is my assessment of the transit growth question in Mississauga. On one level, we say we all want it. We do the easy lifting by preparing studies and planning assessments, which all point to a brighter future with less commuting and gridlock. But as we approach the moment of commitment to significant funding and potential tax increases, we avoid it. And the repulsiveness of pursuing this goal increases as the city gets closer to it.

In laboratories, psychologists have gauged the force of this tendency in rats. In 1948, Judson Brown measured the strength of 96 rats pulling toward a food reward and simultaneously pulling away from receiving an electrical shock. The rats were measured by a harness attached to a leash; the closer they got to the food, the closer they got to the shock. Interesting image—96 rats feeling very conflicted.

1973

1973

Now imagine our civic leaders in stylish harnesses facing the dilemma of transit funding.

For many decades now our leaders have opted to avoid the shock, which has led to a situation where the costs to catch up with high-capacity, integrated and convenient transit are so severe that no single level of government can foot the bill.

In Mississauga, the Hurontario/Main LRT system is at the critical stage of seeking capital funding. Proposed to connect Brampton to Mississauga City Centre to Port Credit, this initiative is being met with great suspicion and fear both from our leadership cadre and some citizens. Our municipal leaders are telling the upper levels to fund it all. Avoidance.

The prime reason for building the LRT now is that Mississauga will soon reach a capacity limit with its buses and cars. The demand and need for transit will be even more evident as the large projected increase in population along the Hurontario corridor and in our centres is realized through planned developments. The LRT system can well handle this increased demand, with each train module accommodating 200 riders; up to three modules can be linked to handle 600 riders. It is simply good planning to support that growth with more efficient and comfortable public transit capable of moving growing ridership without relying on cars.

In 2017, Waterloo Region will begin construction of their LRT system connecting Waterloo, Kitchener and Cambridge. With a total regional population of 550,000, they persevered amid strident opposition, and got their funding for construction: one third eachfrom federal, provincial and municipal/regional governments. How did they justify this to their constituents? Over 10 years ago they saw the long-term benefits, which they summarized as follows:

  • Without an LRT, 500 kilometres of new roadways would be needed to accommodate growth at a cost of about $1.4 billion, all paid for by the municipal taxpayers with no contribution from the province or the feds;
  • Without an LRT, more dependence will be placed on the road system, increasing the need for costly road expansions, maintenance and improvements;
  • Without an LRT, a significant amount of land will be required by Waterloo Region to accommodate expansion and growth, including new roads or road widenings through established neighbourhoods;
  • The rise in population would lead to unmanageable gridlock across the community;
  • Road improvements and expansions do not offer the same level of development opportunities as an LRT.

Development opportunities? This is a key concept and potential benefit in any rapid-transit scenario. In Mississauga, we are at a point where new development will have to occur within existing contexts as there are no more open greenfields. Infill development will be useful in meeting our obligations to create more employment opportunities locally, increase the range and type of housing within a community, and provide the attendant amenities, services and facilities to support such growth.

The Hurontario corridor seeks these same outcomes: the connection of north/south movement to east/west movement, the concentration of density to support use and sustainability in nodes and corridors, and the connection of employment and other community service uses to residents, providing an alternative to car ownership.
Waterloo Region is doing it. Edmonton is doing it. Calgary is building it.

The greatest stumbling block to funding is risk. What is it and who takes it? Large sums of capital are being requested based on projections that call for an urban, more intense type of development, located in compact geographical nodes and corridors. What if this new urban form does not happen? What do we do in a recession? How do politics at three levels of government work together? What if the locals don’t want to lose their cherished left-turn lanes? Heads may roll!

Transit makes the decision-makers very nervous. There is a great temptation to just leave this wonderful city alone. We are happy. We love our cars. Don’t mess with paradise. But without intensification, how will we be able to move through it? How can we afford not to grow?

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Artist’s impression: the Hurontario/Main LRT system.


Michael Spaziani operates MSAi, a Mississauga-based commercial architecture and urban design consulting company. He also serves as an expert witness at the OMB.

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