By Adam Slight
As I warned earlier this week, I’m freshly returned from a vacation in Taiwan and Bali, so bear with me if my posts for the next little while reflect on my travels.
One thing my wife and I noticed while in Taiwan, and especially noticed after returning to Canada, was how slick, efficient, and shiny Taiwan’s public transportation is in comparison to Canada's. We travelled by subway across Taipei with astounding efficiency, never having to wait longer than 2 minutes for a train, and arriving within 5 minutes walking distance of any site or restaurant we wanted to visit in the city. The subway stations were beautiful, clean, and sleek, and everything worked like clockwork. We also took a speed train from Taipei to Tainan that arrived every 15 minutes and carried us completely across the country cutting what would be a four-hour drive down to a two-hour comfortable train ride.
Then we came back to Canada and took a ride on VIA Rail from Toronto to Ottawa. The train station was dilapidated, held together by duct-tape in some parts, and the train broke down half-way, taking over 7 hours to travel from Toronto to Ottawa. All in all, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that compared to industrious Taiwan, Canada’s infrastructure as always seems to be in a state of disrepair, construction, or renovation. Look around you next time you’re out, and count how many potholes you see, or buildings being restored, or roads under construction.
In an unrelated experience I found myself recently driving through Barrhaven, visiting the farmland that my Irish ancestors cultivated when they found themselves in Bytown out in Fallowfield. My mother’s mother’s family held vast tracts of farmland in what is now Barrhaven. If you’re at all familiar with how Barrhaven has been developing over the past two decades, you can probably see where this story is going.
We turned a familiar corner onto Jockvale Road—past massive box stores and sprawling subdivisions. I hadn’t been to this part of the city for over a decade, and while I had known the truth for some time, I was still shocked to see that the large farmhouse my nana had grown up in—a farmhouse that she has represented in a painting on her wall at home—was indeed nowhere to be seen, replaced by some kind of OC Transpo bus parking lot. I’m not even sure what it is. It would have been a little easier to swallow if there was a Wal-Mart there or something because then at least I'd understand what the beautiful farmhouse had been demolished for.
Seeking understanding, I was informed that somebody somewhere in the family indeed sold the land for development, furthering the encroachment of Ottawa’s suburbia onto its heritage farmland. It made me realize how much of a domino effect the spread of suburbia has—developers buy the land bit by bit, and it’s difficult to say no to the money when they come knocking at your door.
But it took a personal experience like this to really sway my position on the “condos in Ottawa” debate in their favour.
You see, the reason why Taiwan’s public transportation is so amazing can be explained by looking at certain numbers. Ottawa’s population density is 316.6 people per square kilometre, and Taipei’s is…well… around 9600. This means that for every kilometre of public transpo in Ottawa, there are on average 316.6 people using it and supporting it with their tax dollars, as opposed to the 9600 people per kilometre in Taipei. From this perspective it is understandable why Taipei’s public transportation is so much more effective, as every kilometre is supported and used by so many people.
With North American values continuing to insist that every person has the right to ownership of their very own identical home and square tract of lawn to cut, developers continue to push the physical limits of our city boundaries with sprawling subdivisions of cookie-cutter houses. As these boundaries press outwards, we not only end up steam-rolling rustic farmland with generic communities like Barrhaven, filled with box stores and shoddily crafted homes (built for quick production, not longevity, I might add), we also stretch the capabilities of our public transportation system.
This creates a vicious cycle—with mediocre transpo, suburbanites are left with no choice but to resort to using their own vehicles to get into the city. This leads to congestion, stress, road rage, and other automotive displeasures.
And then we wonder why our city’s sense of community is often in question, why attendance at community events is always a concern, why travel guides warn tourists against driving on Ottawa’s streets, why foot-traffic has declined in the Byward Market and on Sparks Street, and why lack of adequate parking spaces is reported as one of the leading causes.
So what do we do?
Stop the urban sprawl, and focus on centralization. Condos anyone?
The idea of condos in Ottawa leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many who distinguish Ottawa from bustling metropoli like Toronto and Vancouver–cities that have transformed over the past decades due to the introduction of condo towers to their skylines. “We don’t want condos popping up in our backyards, blocking out the sun,” is the common sentiment held by home-owners in The Glebe, Westboro, Centertown, and Lower Town, followed by, “Glass and concrete towers are so ugly!”
The fact remains that condominiums can play a powerful role in promoting growth in a community, by introducing hundreds of new residents to a neighbourhood, all housed within a focused vicinity. The condo has been credited for promoting intense economic growth in down town Toronto, transforming it into the undeniably thriving city centre that it is today.
Condos are not perfect however, as we discussed earlier this year, with cheap, shoddy workmanship and ugly appearance both presenting serious issues. With Ottawa’s heritage being a concern, condos in Ottawa would be wise to stay true to local architectural appearances and take advantage of existing un-used heritage structures whenever possible to ensure that buildings mesh with the surrounding context. Keep in mind that the alternative to altering down town’s rustic appeal with gaudy condo towers is to crawl further into Ottawa’s heritage farmland and vital swamp systems with gaudy subdivisions. Choose your poison!
With more property owners opting for condos, we could expect to see public transportation to improve to support a more vitalized down town community. Believe it or not, but it would actually be easier to take public transportation than get a lift in a car. Local businesses and restaurants would also benefit as more residents explore their neighbourhoods as they walk to get groceries, cycle to work, and connect with their city as a whole.
In fact, I think a lot of Ottawa’s problems stem from resources being stretched too thin as residents insist on more road, more transpo, more sewer, and more side walk per capita.
Unfortunately, however, the solution is far less simple. It involves transforming people’s mentality—convincing young home-owners that a full and happy life does not necessarily require ownership of a large home in the ‘burbs—that in fact, there are countless perks associated with trading in the second Escalade and semi-detached to live down town.
Of course, faced with such a daunting task, it’s probably easier to just push our city to its limits even further and settle for mediocre public transportation, because after decades of North American conditioning, minds are not so easily changed.