A conference held at York University in late September rightfully recognized the political importance of post-secondary school students when it comes to regional transit planning, said a Toronto city councillor this week.
Adam Vaughan, who helped organize Going to School: A Transit Summit, which took place Friday Sept. 28 at York University, said the event succeeded in bringing attention to the importance of universities and colleges as central transit nodes crucial to the mobility of an estimated 650,000 post-secondary students in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA).
“We have a fresh focus now,” said Vaughan on Monday of the inaugural summit, which was held inside the Underground restaurant in the York Student Centre and co-organized by the university’s CITY Institute. “We’ve never looked at who we were serving, that’s been missing from the debate. Focusing on students gives us a political base.”
At the summit, York University student Michael Collens said students want to take transit to get to school, even though they are forced to rely on cars due to minimal service.
“We haven’t addressed how people are going to get places via transit because of a lack of connectivity,” said Collens, who took part in a panel discussion along with TTC chair Karen Stintz and GO Transit president Gary McNeil.
“We have connections in place but don’t synchronize them between transit authorities,” he said. “And we have to do it more with the population increases in the region.”
During his keynote speech Vaughan, who represents Trinity—Spadina on Toronto City Council, used presentation slides to illustrate how the establishment of universities in the GTHA has historically fuelled urban growth, beginning pre-Second World War and continuing through the post-war boom years before stagnating for decades until the turn of the century.
But provincial and federal interest in universities of late and worsening regional traffic congestion mean the time to green-light transit expansion is now, said Vaughan to the planners, academics and commentators in attendance.
“The development of transit goes together with a boom in university building like a hand in glove,” said Vaughan.
Urban planner Sean Hertel told the estimated 150 participants continued regional development is dependent on better transit. Suburbs in particular have formed their own regional identity and are no longer defined by their proximity to larger city centres, he said.
“We live regional lives now,” said Hertel who spoke on a panel moderated by new Toronto chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat. “We’re engaged in city building whether we realize it or not.”
At the Keele campus, where a subway station for the upcoming Spadina extension is currently under construction, 1,900 buses from five different transit agencies visit York daily, said Christopher Wong, the university’s director of transportation planning. He called for more transit, particularly connections linking east and west.
“East and west connections are vital and will set the stage for the next 25 years of growth for the university,” said Wong.
City councillor Shelley Carroll, who represents Don Valley East, told the audience she wanted to see fellow transit campaigners alongside her at developer meetings and Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) hearings “fighting density”.
“Transit supporters need to be in the conversation because higher density supports greater transit,” said Carroll on Monday.
“If you’re an activist, flip through every newspaper and know when people are discussing growth and development issues.”
Too often, said Carroll, local councillors are left to advocate alone in favour of unpopular high density projects without support from either the transit intelligentsia or politicians too nervous to inflame tensions of residents who don’t want a highrise development in their neighbourhood.
“The safest thing to do politically is push off a transit project and not do anything at all,” she said.
Carroll said she was disappointed to see only like-minded individuals taking part in the conference.
“The people who could learn from this stuff weren’t in the room,” she said.