Monday, November 23, 2009

The Fall of Great Cities

Urban Planning Gone Wrong
Last week, over 300,000 commuters in Canada’s largest city were suddenly displaced, when the city’s subway system was suddenly out of service.

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) shut down a portion of one of the city’s three subway routes, due to a construction mishap during the afternoon rush hour.

Almost immediately, hundreds of thousands of people had no way to get home. The TTC did add extra buses on surface routes, but a bus holding about 35-45 people is no substitute for a subway train which can carry several times that many.

Commuter bottleneck after a V train arrives on...Image via Wikipedia

Quickly the shuttle buses filled up – actually overfilled would be more like it – to the point where bus drivers were only stopping to allow people lucky enough to hitch a ride off.

This meant an estimated 300,000 people had no way of getting home during one of the busiest times for the ailing transit system.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, just a few months ago during the summer, the whole line had to be shut down during the afternoon rush hour, again leaving hundreds of thousands of transit riders without a method to get home.

Drivers weren’t any better off, in both instances, major north-south roads were closed to all but shuttle buses by police, causing traffic chaos for those of us in our own personal vehicles. Thousands of cars lined the downtown core, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of angry pedestrians, being forced to walk – all because of Toronto’s failing public transit system. If this were a scene from a big block buster Hollywood movie, it might be a cool – but this horror was no movie.

Extra police – some in riot gear – were on scene, to ensure frustrated motorists, pedestrians and just anyone else in the center of Canada’s largest city, didn’t misbehave during this example of urban planning gone horribly wrong. T

City of TorontoImage via Wikipedia

hese made one of the wealthiest first nation countries on the planet resemble a war zone.

Traffic in most cities around the world is constantly getting worse, as more people move to areas outside of the cities to live, but continue to work within those cities. This has forced interdependence upon personal vehicles – you need a car to go from your home in the suburbs to work in the city and back again.

With this urban sprawl, you’d figure the largest cities in the world would listen to the warnings and heed the advice of urban planners like legendary planning guru Jane Jacobs. Jacobs (best known for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities), a native of the States, in her later years moved to Toronto, Canada where she was very vocal about the decay of North American cities. She predicted how Canada’s cities would follow the same dreadful path to self-destruction, if infrastructure improvements didn’t keep pace with population increases, and if our cities didn’t become centers to live AND work in, instead of what they have become – just places to work in.

That’s how poor ghettos are formed, surrounded by wealthy suburbs.

Jacobs passed away in her 80’s a few years ago, but many urban planners, academics and other braniacs that study these things have continued to sound the alarm on the dire state our most heavily populated places poor planning.

Basic infrastructures have continued to be maintained – sewage and solid waste systems, electrical power grids, even natural gas lines in some areas have all expanded north of our cities, fostering new neighborhoods. But no new major highways have been built to accommodate all those extra cars and trucks going back and forth from the city to the suburbs.

Mass public transit systems (like subways, light rail systems, or even bus lanes) have also not been put into the equation. Meaning the few highways in and out of our major urban centers become disaster zones during the morning, afternoon and weekend rush hours.

Our cities become corrupt, dirty, dangerous and desperate areas, as those living in them are the working poor that can’t afford the luxury of a personal vehicle, so they are stuck in areas serviced by public transit.

As the poor get poorer, and the rich get richer – something which has been occurring now for the past two-decades by many accounts – our cities continue to become urban slums – ghettos for the poor.

As politicians cater to the rich and powerful that support their election campaigns, funding continues to be diverted to services for many who don’t even live in the city – the rich and the powerful living in the posh suburbs.

Cover of "The Death and Life of Great Ame...Cover via Amazon

This ignorance of the very people within the city limits harms us all – roads don’t get built, transit systems continue to be underfunded, both of which collide into a fatal head-on collision during peak travel times.

Ironic as it is, that’s the sad fate of our urban centers, thanks to greedy inept politicians and poor urban planning which doesn’t meet the needs of the majority of the city’s population.

Once safe, friendly and prosperous cities become more crime-ridden, places of danger and despair, as poor planning causes economic disparity. A disproportionate spread of educated, middle class continue to leave the city, to call the suburbs home – though all the jobs remain in the city.

This is because it is easier for companies to find cheap, unskilled labor off major public transit lines, so the poorer city residents continue to live and work in our cities. While the higher-paid skilled workers also work in the city, but they live anywhere but the city.

Politicians, thinking they are scratching the backs of those who will help them win their jobs back in the next election, pump money into expansion of city-run sewers, electrical systems, and other support systems from the city to the suburbs.

This encourages new neighborhoods for the suburbs, but they don’t create any new major highways or transit system expansions from these neighborhoods to the city.

The politicians know no one wants a major highway running through their backyard, so instead of doing the right thing, the do what is politically correct – and least likely to alienate the very people who can elect that person back into office.

So the new urban sprawl continues, traffic congestion gets worse as the middle class and up shifts from the city to the ‘burbs’ leaving the poorer lower classes in our cities, and in the end, our once wonderful cities become victims of their own demise.

Just ask the over 300,000 people who were stuck without a way to get home during last week’s subway shut-down – that’s almost a half-million people. And that doesn’t include the thousands of people in their cars and trucks, trying to get out of the city, to their suburban home.

Poor Jane Jacobs, she must be rolling over in her grave, shaking her fist, as she says: “I told you so.”

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