From Mars to Hamilton?

Saturday, April 5th was a beautiful, warm, sunny day, but over one hundred dedicated souls spent it in the basement of the MaRS Centre on College Street talking about transit. To my great delight, the crowd was not just the “usual suspects”, the transit afficionados who can be counted on to show up at every event, but a much broader group of people with strong interests in what can make the city and its transportation system work.

This was the second “Transit Camp” (last year’s dealt with the TTC’s website), and the first in a series of “un-conferences” about the Metrolinx Regional Transit Plan. Many folks from Metrolinx as well as the TTC and other agencies attended, but it was not a gathering of professionals where the general public sat meekly through hours of powerpoints. Indeed, this event generated far more wide-ranging discussions and feedback than we would normally see at a “formal” public participation event.

When this scheme first surfaced, I worried that the leap from a single topic Transit Camp to something as broad as a regional plan might founder through lack of focus and from the huge learning curve anyone new to the topic would have in absorbing work already done by Metrolinx. To my great delight, the event self-organized into roughly fifty discussions not one of which took the form of “let’s argue about Metrolinx Green Paper number 42”. Indeed, many of the topics lay in areas that Metrolinx studies only glance at.

This can be an opportunity for Metrolinx, but it can also be a dangerous rift between what matters to people about transportation and what Metrolinx is actually doing. Much of the official focus is on the maps, the proposals for various network options, and I expect we will see the usual tugs-of-war between regions each of which want at least three new subway lines to serve their town centres. But that’s not what a transportation network is all about, and many issues from the quality of space in which people travel to service and fare structures to the challenge of providing viable alternatives to auto trips fill the agenda.

Transit Camp was a useful reminder of this, and it underscores the need to look at the whole picture of transportation and travel experience, not just lines on a map.

The next event will be in early May, possibly somewhere to the west, maybe in Hamilton, with a third event somewhere in the east to follow. In the best tradition of unstructured events, things are still a bit vague.

By June, when the draft Regional Transportation Plan comes out, the discussions will inevitably change (printed maps always cause people to argue over the lines rather than the issues), and the tone of future Transit Camps may adjust accordingly.

Watch the Metronauts and Metrolinx pages for information on future events.