By Evan Weinberg, Toronto Financial District BIA
On March 26, 2015, ULI Toronto hosted a member’s only event at Goodmans LLP. The event provided member’s access to Iain Dobson, co-founder of Strategic Regional Research Alliance (SRRA), who discussed SmartTrack and gave an exclusive preview of research looking at the connection between transit and employment in the GTA.
Prior to 1980, almost all office towers were built along the subway line in Toronto. However, the expansion of the highway network was accompanied by the suburbanization of office development. Today, 350,000 people who work in office towers must drive to work every day due to a lack of transit options. With 51% of all jobs in Toronto located in offices, the challenge of getting people efficiently to work is literally driving congestion during peak hours. Dobson suggested that in the next 30 years the GTA is expected to absorb 1 million new jobs in buildings that are not yet built. Where they are built will impact the quality of life in the region for years to come.
Using higher-order transit to connect people to jobs should be a fundamental part of transportation planning and Dobson believes SmartTrack is part of the solution. SmartTrack builds upon the Ontario Government’s plan to electrify the existing GO System by creating a rapid transit line that would offer three key items:
1. All-day, two-way service every 15 minutes
2. Integrate into the existing transportation network
3. Connect the three largest employment nodes in the GTA: Toronto’s expanding Financial District, Markham and Mississauga’s airport corporate centre.
The Crucial Link between Transit Planning and Economic Development
It’s employers who decide where office buildings go, not necessarily developers. Dobson believes that understanding employer’s decisions on where to locate is a key part of transportation planning. This connection is highlighted in the work Dobson has done at Strategic Regional Research Alliance (SRRA), with the Nodal Study. The Nodal Study interviewed 350 businesses growing big and fast enough to have new office space built in the future.
So what do employers want?
1. Mixed-used environments
2. Just in-time solution (Cities need to figure out how to deliver product faster)
3. Affordability (especially for startups)
4. Access to labour of all types
5. Reduced commute times
“Smart” Transit Planning
Dobson continued to highlight the need to look at current and future projections of employment in the GTA as part of transportation planning. While the province’s Growth Plan designated many nodes for intensification, not all employment nodes have seen growth in the last few decades, many of which are already well connected by higher-order transit. When office buildings are located beside high-capacity and high-speed transit, there is a shared value proposition. Once an office building is built, it stays there for 80-plus years, defining the quality of life for all that work in them. While users may change over time, it will continue to be a destination.
Having public policy better understanding where jobs currently are and where they will be in the future mitigates risk of investing in transportation that doesn’t improve the way the GTA gets to work. SmartTrack can potentially operate to connect people to 20 million square feet of office, plus an international airport, which Dobson believes is pretty “smart” planning.