By Kathryn Willms
Some days it feels like there is no topic more contentious than transportation. Road tolls. Bike lanes. Autonomous vehicles. The rising costs of infrastructure and land, and growing concerns about global warming, mean that the intensity of these conversations will only escalate. But the picture isn’t all bleak. In Markham, and small cities like it, personal vehicles used to be the only way to get from A to B. Today, a growing number of transportation options, combined with years of planning, are paying off, and it looks like we might be driving – or pedalling – our way to a brighter future.
The key to unlocking a future of healthier people, a healthier environment, and less gridlock is simple: less cars on the road. And Markham is making strides in this direction. For example, over 20 Markham-based companies have used the services of Smart Commute. This organization, coordinated by Metrolinx in partnership with the municipalities of the GTHA, helps businesses encourage employees to commute sustainably. By, for example, using Smart Commute’s online ride matching tool, which allows employees to log on to a company account to set up carpooling, offering incentives such as preferential parking for ride-sharers, or adding facilities like bike racks. Smart Commute surveys employees to come up with a customized transportation plan for companies, taking into account location, access to transit, and employee preferences. The underlying principles are: make employees aware of their options, give them incentives, and make it easy. “Companies are more and more open to these ideas,” says Acting Manager of Smart Commute Markham, Richmond Hill, Wincy Tsang.
One of those companies is WSP/MMM Group, an early adopter of Smart Commute. The engineering consulting firm provides large- and small- scale transportation planning services to both the public and private sectors, including work on public transit. Dave Richardson is a Partner in the Transportation Planning Department (as well as Chairman of the local Advisory Committee for Smart Commute Markham, Richmond HIll). Richardson’s pride and joy is the Active Transportation Group within the department, which has written the guidelines in Ontario for the planning, design, operation, and maintenance of cycling facilities, including pavement markings, signage, and end-of-trip facilities such as parking. This work is “full circle” for Richardson; one of his very first projects after joining MMM was the design of bike lanes on the Bloor Viaduct for the City of Toronto. “That really proved to me that you can have cyclists, motorists, and even pedestrians coexist,” he says. A few years later, he led the development of Toronto’s Cycling Master Plan that provided the impetus for the provision of city-wide cycling infrastructure.
Richardson is a personal enthusiast of alternative transportation options. “I have three Presto passes,” he says with a laugh. He mentions that part of the reason for moving to MMM was that the office was only 4 km from home, allowing him to bike to work. The office is also well-served by public transit, and employees are encouraged to take part in initiatives like carpooling and Bike to Work Week. These programs contribute to employee wellness – a fact that Richardson can attest to personally (“biking to work is incredibly invigorating and … I look fabulous in spandex!”). They also reduce reliance on non-renewable resources, and make good business sense, reducing the cost of buying land and building parking lots. “Green travel has become part of our business plan,” says Richardson, and he’s seen many other companies making the same decision.
As businesses jump on board, and commuter attitudes adjust, there is an increasing need for the infrastructure that makes sustainable commuting possible. As Tsang points out, it’s difficult to ask someone to bike to work where there are no bike lanes. And people are more likely to take transit if it fits their schedule and location. “We always talk about first mile, last mile,” she says. “How do we get people to the nearest transit, so it’s easier for them to make the choice.” It’s a challenge the City of Markham is both aware of and embracing. The current city plan sets out to pursue land-use strategies that encourage transit use and create urban environments that allow for active transportation. One of the key initiatives is to require new developments to provide a transportation demand management strategy, in which they outline how they will encourage alternative forms of transportation. This may include bicycle parking, information displays for transit, car-share programs, and unbundled parking. Meanwhile, the City has undertaken a number of cycling infrastructure projects to make Richardson’s commute a possibility for more people, including the Highway 7 cycling track (to be completed this summer), a trail connecting Lake Simcoe and Lake Ontario, the Rouge Valley Trail (a 15km pathway linking 16th Ave. and Kennedy Road to the Bob Hunter Memorial Park), and cycling facilities currently being planned for Rodick Road.
Other companies are also stepping in to close the gap. As part of a province-wide expansion, Zipcar has recently moved into Markham, where they’ve placed two vehicles – one at the Markham GO Station and the other at the Upper Village condominiums on Markham Road. Marketing Manager Kristopher Luey says the move was motivated by an increased appetite for car sharing in smaller urban centres, which in turn has been driven by a proliferation of transportation options, including more transit. “Car sharing works well when there is dependence on transit and an opportunity to do away with the personal vehicle,” he says. In a place like Markham where most people still have a vehicle, Zipcar currently sees a couple of distinct opportunities – as a second car replacement for families and as a vehicle for businesses (in lieu of company cars and reducing dependence on taxis).
“Vehicles sit idle 95% of the time,” says Luey. “And there are a lot of drawbacks when you do own a vehicle. There’s maintenance, upkeep, depreciation, and insurance.” Car sharing can create efficiencies by allowing people to access different types of vehicles depending on their needs, as well as having vehicles in a variety of cities (Zipcar has 10,000 cars worldwide). Zipcar estimates that every one of their vehicles takes 15 personally owned ones off the road. Luey sees a promising potential union between car sharing and autonomous vehicles. “The day when your Zipcar can come to you isn’t far off,” he says. Regardless of what the future holds, the vision is clear: to do away with the personal vehicle. But how realistic is that for Markham?
“I think very realistic,” says Luey. “With York Region transit, with the Metrolinx availability and with a growing city-centric mindset where people don’t need to leave Markham, it’s entirely possible.”
Embracing alternatives to the single-occupancy vehicle could have a huge impact on not just the environment but on gridlock, commute times, and quality of life for all Markham residents. When making transportation decisions, Richardson reminds us that it is vital to always keep the larger perspective in mind. “If we could get everyone to travel differently one day a week – say they took the bus or cycled or carpooled or walked – that’s a 20% reduction in traffic. That would pretty much eliminate congestion. People are really starting to catch on. We’re not expecting to change the world overnight, but every little bit helps.”