Wednesday, November 11, 2015

TODs are not new

Kidlets production of Squirm
Monday I took my granddaughter to Covent Garden Market where the Original Kids Theatre Company is located. Fiona was taking part in the Kidlets production of Squirm. And the kids, by the way, were simply great. Loved every minute of the performance.

What does my granddaughter's appearance in Squirm have to do with urban transit? More than you might think. To get Fiona downtown on time I picked her up at her school in northwest London and scooted her to the theatre using Riverside Drive. Using my car, I had her downtown in less than fifteen minutes.

What I find interesting in this story is that at no point did anyone suggest taking the bus. And no one even thought this strange. But it is.

When I was a boy in the '50s everyone I knew lived close to a bus route. All the schools were on bus routes. Because very few families had two cars and some families did not have a car at all, taking a child from school to a downtown event usually involved a bus trip. (When I was born in the late '40s there was only one car for every five people living in Ontario.)

I admit that even in the '50s taking a bus took a bit longer than taking a car, if a car was available, but the difference was a matter of minutes and not a choice between being on time or being late.

Since my boyhood a lot has happened in urban growth and most of it has been centred around our use of the car. Many believe the car-oriented approach to urban planning has to change and the City of London gives lip service to this argument but, for the most part, only lip service.

A New Urbanism development slated for the southeast corner of the Colonel Talbot and Southdale Road never materialized. London politicians, and worse London urban planners, like to talk the talk but time after time they fail to deliver.

Exhibit 6 seems impossible considering today's activity.
Take all the talk about TOD (Transit Oriented Development). You'd think that a TOD was something new; it isn't.

TOD is prominently featured in Smart Moves, the 2030 Transportation Master Plan. Smart Moves claims that London urban planners have determined the northeast corner of the intersection of Oxford Street West and Wonderland Road North will be the focus of a major mixed-use, transit-oriented, development. To underline the depth of their support for this they have included some art in the Smart Moves presentation. 

The off-the-shelf graphics are inadequate. Anyone familiar with TODs would realize this does not represent a world-class TOD despite claims by the city planners to the contrary.

Two story commercial with no residential being built on site.
Consider the fact that a development is going up on that very corner today and it is not at all as envisioned. Some TODs in the States and elsewhere are absolutely amazing and this didn't just happen. They were planned, nurtured, coaxed and guided to completion.

In some ways where I lived in the '50s could be thought of as an early form of TOD. Transit, commercial, residential and even industrial were all mixed. The major road through my neighbourhood was what was then known as a King's Highway. That road was four lanes wide, plus on-the-street parking and a centre boulevard. It easily supported my fully mixed-use neighbourhood. Buses moved relatively unimpeded along that road.

And back then mixed use really did mean mixed. There were lovely apartments above many of the commercial businesses lining the King's Highway. I had school friends who lived above some of those stores. This was a common feature of business districts built in the early part of the last century. My aunt in Brantford lived above a store and many friends in art school in Detroit walked to school from their apartments above nearby stores.

And there was also a lot of industrial included in the mix. It was not uncommon for people living in my neighbourhood to walk to work, to walk to stores and even to walk to church. If your doctor was in the Medical Arts building, you probably took the bus to see your doctor. The main library was downtown, the locally owned department store, Bartlet, McDonald and Gow, was also downtown, and, of course, the biggest and best movie theatres were all in the city core. Taking the bus was an integral part of living in the city.
Apartments north of the intersection are a wee bit boring.
Come to think of it, the present development at the Oxford and Wonderland corner could be thought of as a poor attempt at a TOD. Without these two major thoroughfares I doubt the forest of high-rise apartments would have sprung just north in this intersection.

But the apartments sit bunched together separated from the commercial. In many parts of the world, small stores would fill the first floor of many of these apartments but not in London.

This intersection earns no praise for imaginative planning. I doubt it will be an absolute visual delight in the future no matter how good the transit system.

To learn more about TODs:

A key point of the PowerPoint presentation above is that the TOD value come more from the actual mixed use neighbourhood created and not simply from the transit itself. Think: Quality. Look at the pictures posted from the London intersection. Do you immediately think "quality"?

Simply adding rapid transit, bus or light rail, is not enough to instantly create a successful TOD.

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