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Hertel, Sean and Collens, Michael, Urban Consultant, Toronto and York University

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Hertel, Sean and Collens, Michael, Urban Consultant, Toronto and York University

Switching Tracks: Towards equity in public transit infrastructure priorities in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area

By Sean Hertel and Michael Collens

We propose that equity, being the fair and appropriate distribution of costs and benefits, should be specifically identified as a core determinant and goal of public transit infrastructure investment decisions in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). In doing so, we reflect on processes influencing the existing, planned and under-construction network of public transit in the GTHA through the lens of social justice and municipal governance literatures in combination with a scan of international public transit case studies.

While the GTHA is a large, fast-growing and generally prosperous region we make the claim that the benefits of public transit investments are not equally distributed and are problematic. Not unlike large metropolitan regions in around the world, the GTHA has structural inequities created over decades, if not more than a century, of decisions being made and not made: where growth occurs; the type and density of development; where transit and other infrastructures are constructed, and; where public and private capital is invested and extracted. While the region, as a whole, stands to benefit from public transit infrastructure investments, those benefits are unequally distributed within the region.

Further frustrating the equitable distribution of transit benefits across the region is that population and employment growth remains strong in the GTHA suburbs, while transit infrastructure and services there are not keeping pace in comparison to improvements within the city of Toronto. The GTHA suburbs are also becoming an increasingly polarized sociospatial landscape, which brings more urgency to the need for addressing and correcting growth-mobility infrastructure imbalances.

The planning, funding, and building of regional transit in the GTHA is perhaps as complex and layered and the region itself; through the interplay of Provincial and municipal transit systems, corresponding political structures, real and imagined centre-periphery and urban-suburban schisms, and different (often with divergent interests) constituencies or publics. Overlaying the more locally-scaled municipal systems, regional transit in the GTAH is led by the Province of Ontario’s transit agency Metrolinx, and directed by the 25-year, $50-billion plan The Big Move (Greater Toronto Transportation Authority, 2008).

With 1,200 km of rapid transit planned under the Big Move, in combination with the addition of 2.5 million people and 1.5 million jobs (Ontario Ministry of Finance, 2014) to the region by 2031, this period is the single greatest – and perhaps last – opportunity to complete the regional transit network required for the GTHA, and to do so in an equitable manner. It is an opportunity to counteract the structural inequities that have been created by, and have persisted throughout, past growth-infrastructure cycles and “the inertia of the public transit system” (Mettke, 2014, in Filion and Keil, 2015). This includes the deliberate re-calibrating of public investment decision-making criteria to align with social need, and to re-balance obvious gaps in investment between the centre and periphery (Silk, 2011).

The literature indicates sociospatial inequality is increasing in the GTHA (Hulchanski, 2010). If we are to make headway at reversing it then we need to begin with defining what equity is, and how it can be measured. Transit investments, by their very nature, have consequences beyond capital (rolling stock, terminals) and the operations (routes, headways) they support. They also build cities, enable communities, and empower individuals to participate in society’s opportunities more fully. Correspondingly, we refer to “transit equity” – also called “transit justice” about which there is a large literature, and “fairness” – as the fair distribution of the benefits and costs in a manner that is responsive to the social and economic needs of the most number of residents, and especially those most vulnerable.

We begin with exploring the fact that there are winners and losers. Deciding transit infrastructure priorities – lines, technologies, station locations, service frequencies, budgets – preordains those who stand to win and lose from those decisions. Our international review of jurisdictions and literatures points to historical and politically-reinforced transit path dependencies in Toronto and other major metropolitan centres: investments in lines and stations – almost always rail – tend to favour the influential power elites of the region, and thereby reinforce pre-existing socio-spatial inequities. In short, transit investments have tended to benefit areas that are already doing well, while not changing the prospects for areas that are not.

There are multi-scalar processes that manifest spatially in the suburbs that are essential to the metabolism of the urban region, and to connect the region to global circuits. However, these processes serve to fragment and segregate suburban areas both from each other and the central core. Importantly, the fragmentation is happening in governance as well, with the rise of the private sector and the retreat of senior governments. Social inequity has a physical form that can be identified geographically. Taking a nuanced view of suburbs, such as considering the “inbetween” spaces bypassed by prime circuit flows, helps to dispel the North American stereotype of a monolithic, middle-class landscape [Bou96].

Further compounding the win-lose nature of transit investments is gentrification, which redirects economic and social benefits of transit infrastructure back in favour of those with the means to locate near the best services. Most often, white and more affluent residents are the beneficiaries. This stratification of transit benefits further marginalizes disadvantaged groups, who are most often non-white, and, as our research shows, increasingly “women of colour.” More broadly, transit inequity is correlated with, and compounded by: class; location (centre versus suburb); ethnicity and racialization; age, and (dis)ability.

How do we shift from “picking winners” to creating equity? Interventions, whether top-down or bottom-up or combinations thereof, are required to more equitably distribute the public benefits of public transit investments – including, but not limited to, improved access to employment opportunities and services. Our review reveals that both government- (e.g. Bogotá, TransMilenio) and citizen-led interventions (e.g. Los Angeles, Bus Riders Union) have begun to bring about some degree of transit equity, or at the very least laid claims to it in an emerging public debate around it.

Strategies to address the “equity issue” are generally focused on the network (where the lines go), access (service), and price (affordability). Tools or levers deployed through various strategies include either, or a combination of, legal action, political action, state intervention, technical innovation, and economic incentives. These can give rise to a number of tactics including, for example, reduced or fare-free structures, the democratization of line and service planning, and the mandated consideration of social equity as a factor in determining new or expanded services. So often in the GTHA context transit infrastructure public debates are dominated by weighing technology options, and we tend not to consider such infrastructure as a service for the betterment of socioeconomic conditions. As Filion and Keil (2015) argue, “infrastructures are, therefore, not an end in themselves. They are enablers, providing conditions making other activities possible.” A transit equity lens is helpful to ensure that systematic inequities are not propagated and reinforced and to address social marginalization of disadvantaged groups and geographies.

We close by thinking about and taking action towards equity and transit justice. We need to begin to identify ways of thinking about transit justice and to ask important, and sometimes uncomfortable, questions that will help shape the conversation among community leaders and activists, government and governance actors, and academics.


Bourne, L. S. (1996). Reinventing the suburbs: Old myths and new realities. Progress in Planning, 46(3), 163-184.

Filion, P., & Keil, R. (2015). The Contested and Unpredictable Nature of Suburban Infrastructures. Presented at the Infrastructure Problems and Solutions in the Global Suburb, Waterloo, ON.

Greater Toronto Transportation Authority, & Metrolinx. (2008). The big move: Transforming transportation in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Toronto, Ont.: Metrolinx.

Hulchanski, J. D. (2010). The three cities within Toronto: Income polarization among Toronto’s neighbourhoods, 1970-2005. Toronto, Ont.: Cities Centre, University of Toronto. Retrieved from

Ontario Ministry of Finance. (2014). Ontario Population Projections: 2013-2041. Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario. Retrieved from

Silk, K. (2011). Transit deserts & Hulchanski’s Three Cities. Martin Prosperity Institute, University of Toronto.

Ince, Rebecca and Marvin, Simon, University of Durham

Extended abstract – Suburban Infrastructures Workshop June 14-16th, Waterloo University

Retrofitting ‘obsolete’ suburbs – networks, fixes and fluidity.

Rebecca Ince and Simon Marvin

University of Durham, Geography

Existing suburbs were frequently constructed under a modernist infrastructural logic that accelerated the development and roll-out of high energy consuming suburban landscapes. Yet under contemporary conditions of urban carbon regulation (While et al 2010), resilience (Davoudi 2012) and resource security (Hodson and Marvin 2010) new priorities for systemically reconfiguring suburban energy use have emerged as strategic urban priorities. Reshaping both the social and material organisation of the suburbs to meet these new energy related priorities involves developing a new retrofitting capacity and capability to systemically reconfigure existing energy systems and practices (Hodson and Marvin, forthcoming). Consequently, this paper draws on empirical work in the suburban context of Haringey, London, to investigate the dynamic, chaotic, highly contested process of creating a new networked infrastructure for domestic retrofit. It will explore both the divisive and uneven effects of its manifestation, as well as promising areas of challenge to the dominance of neoliberal urban governance.

The London Borough of Haringey, responding to pressure from local environmental lobbyists and to changes in national government policy priorities and funding, has purposively engaged in the creation of a networked service infrastructure for domestic retrofit services to households for the purposes of reducing their energy efficiency. This infrastructure is an assemblage of elements: processes such as outreach and marketing to householders, household surveys and assessments, accreditation of retrofit professionals and the installation itself, actors such as community groups, surveyors and design professionals, suppliers and installers, local authorities, central government departments, and products such as internal and external wall insulation, boilers, underfloor heating, and windows. The construction of this infrastructure involves a negotiation of multiple interests and factors. These include rules and stipulations from central government, place-specific issues such as socio-economic inequality, unemployment and local economic development, the climate-focussed priorities of the local environmental network and the hopes, capacities and skills of the local authority, its neighbouring authorities and the professional organisations involved. This heavily contested process has produced a variety of responses including a low carbon neighbourhood ‘zone’ based on energy efficiency and retrofit advice, a retrofit co-operative network of local businesses and community organisations, an EU funded business support scheme and a coalition between Haringey and five neighbouring North London boroughs in delivering a short-term national government grant scheme subsidising particular retrofit measures (largely solid wall insulation and boilers). Many of the processes, actors and products overlap in a shared network between the responses, but the ideologies, interests and power often do not. A critical investigation into this emerging infrastructure and its effects contributes to the debate around suburban infrastructures in five key ways.

Firstly, it explores and challenges distinctions between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ infrastructures, by illuminating this peculiar,‘soft-ish’, service oriented (Mommas, 2004) infrastructure: a strongly relational, networked assemblage of actors, products, processes and different forms of knowledge (Star, 1999, McFarlane, 2011), which ultimately delivers a ‘hard’ effect on the built environment through altering the appearance and energy performance of housing, highlighting the complexity and grey areas between the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ distinction.

Secondly, it explores drivers for infrastructural change. In this case, broad societal trends and pressures such as comfort expectations and international commitments to carbon reduction targets have rendered – in the view of policymakers - particular housing types and their energy performance obsolete, creating a strong and urgent national agenda around retrofit. This is not because the housing itself has degraded and its performance worsened - many homes have been standing for over a century and will still stand in 2050 (Ravetz, 2008) - but because the standards against which we are assessing its performance have changed in the context of these new pressures. Sims (2012) would term this mismatch between expectations or standards, and the physical performance of the building stock ‘slippage’.

Thirdly, the process of creating a domestic retrofit infrastructure in this suburban place illuminates key contemporary trends of urban governance relating to pervasive neoliberalism, austerity governance (Peck, 2012 and 2013), and the positioning and manipulation of suburban spaces in this climate as sites of experimentation especially in the governance of climate-related issues (Evans, 2011, Bulkeley and Castan Broto, 2013 and Karvonen and von Heur, 2014). National retrofit policy is defined by a narrow technological specificity for solid wall insulation as a presumed ‘fix’ for obsolete housing, as well as a focus on local public-private coalitions ‘kick-starting the market’. Yet the rhetoric of local experimentation sits uncomfortably alongside technical, legal, budgetary and professional constraints which have steered Haringey Council into partnerships with large commercial and third sector organisations rather than smaller, local co-operatives and community groups, reinforcing existing political and economic power inequalities and exposing the role of the state in encouraging private authoritarian governance (Ekers, Hamel and Keil, 2012). Patterns of sporadic funding opportunities with short-term timescales and tough targets have encouraged both competition and coalitions between spaces and places, creating ‘pop-up’ retrofit territories quickly forged for temporary purposes, as well as ‘hotspots’ at neighbourhood level which attract repeated rounds of funding, thus creating geographically uneven development and progress and huge diversity in outcomes, highlighting the ‘relational energy urbanism’ and geographically diverse nature of the broader energy ‘transition’ observed by Rutherford and Coutard (2014) and Bridge et al (2013).

Fourthly, it demonstrates vividly how the politics of infrastructure creation can create divisions and exclusions (Graham and Marvin, 2001, McFarlane and Rutherford, 2008 and Torrance, 2009), not only between suburbs, or between suburbs and the core of cities, but in this case within the suburban space itself. The national grant scheme has dominated the local agenda and hindered the development of the retrofit co-operative, which is now one of many struggling local retrofit ‘providers’ in a dense network. Clear local priorities around retaining revenue in the borough are compromised, short project timescales prevent the training of local unemployed youth in time to benefit from employment in the emerging infrastructure, and sporadic grant funding and heavy administrative burdens of accreditation hampers smaller businesses’ ability to plan financially for the long-term and compete with larger organisations for work. The grant scheme is designed for those who can pay, with a requirement for at least a £2000 customer contribution to each installation, and funding for those who are unable to pay provided by separate schemes, despite the services and products required being the same. Because of the policy focus on solid wall insulation, the network convenes around solid-walled properties, in areas that do not require planning permission due to heritage constraints or particular architectural features, thus segregating the borough by both socio-economic status and technical criteria. The emerging infrastructure therefore excludes households who are in financial difficulty (which are concentrated in the East of the borough) and those who live in heritage areas, again compromising local priorities of tackling fuel poverty and inequality and producing unequal geographical access between households.

Finally, however, some elements of the emerging infrastructure do represent promising examples of local innovation which challenge the dominance of the national agenda. The decision to contract an independent ‘smart advisor’ to protect householders against financial and hygrothermal risks chimes with the values of local authority officers, as well as their decision (upon protest from local suppliers and community groups) to allow access to retrofit grants using installers and products outside of the main commercial provider. There is genuine willingness of local authority officers to learn from experiences and ‘mistakes’ and engage in a reflection, feedback and evaluation process independent of central government, along with local political will to reconnect retrofit to local priorities around fair, green and locally beneficial growth. This has created the space for producing a Haringey-specific charter of principles for future retrofit schemes which prioritises contracts for local suppliers and installers and includes them and local community groups throughout the borough in designing the service. Engaging with academic research and identifying strong local capacities has enabled the beginnings of a community scale experiment which dovetails training for unemployed youth with the emerging supply chain in the local area and makes better use of the co-operative in addressing energy vulnerability. Networking events aimed at educating tenants and landlords about their legal rights and requirements, then linking them with the local supply chain, show how this exclusive, inequitable infrastructure can potentially be reshaped and linked to more socially just outcomes.

These tales of retrofit in Haringey tell us a complex story about suburbs and their developing infrastructures as sites and systems in painful tension between being controlled and manipulated by divisive neoliberal agendas through national policy, and being the roots of careful, considered local responses to a suite of issues that could demonstrate a more equitable alternative.

Bridge, G, Bouzarovski, S, Bradshaw, M and Eyre, N (2013). ‘Geographies of energy transition: Space, place and the low-carbon economy’ Energy Policy 53 331–340

Bulkeley, H., & Castán Broto, V. (2013). Government by experiment? Global cities and the governing of climate change. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38(3), 361-375.

Davoudi, S (2012) ‘Climate Risk and Security: New Meanings of “the Environment” in the English Planning System’ European Planning Studies Vol. 20, Iss. 1,

Ekers, M, Hamel, P & Keil, R (2012) Governing Suburbia: Modalities and Mechanisms of Suburban Governance, Regional Studies, 46:3, 405-422

Evans, J. P. (2011). Resilience, ecology and adaptation in the experimental city. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 36(2), 223-237.

Graham, S. and S. Marvin (2001) Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. London: Routledge.

Hodson, M and Marvin, S (under review) ‘Retrofit in Greater Manchester: Governing ON, IN and WITH’, Environment and Planning C,

Hodson, M and Marvin, S (2010) World Cities and Climate Change: Producing Urban Ecological Security Open University Press: Maidenhead

Karvonen, A., & Heur, B. (2014). ‘Urban laboratories: experiments in reworking cities’ International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(2), 379-392.

McFarlane, C. (2011). Learning the city: knowledge and translocal assemblage (Vol. 101). John Wiley & Sons.

McFarlane, C. and J. Rutherford (2008) ‘Political infrastructures: Governing and experiencing the fabric of the city’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32: 363-374.

Mommas, H. (2004) ‘Cultural clusters and the post-industrial city: Towards the remapping of urban cultural polity’, Urban Studies 41: 507-532.

Jamie Peck (2011) ‘Neoliberal Suburbanism: Frontier Space’, Urban Geography, 32:6, 884-919,

Jamie Peck (2012) Austerity urbanism, City 16:6, 626-655

Ravetz, J. (2008). ‘State of the stock—What do we know about existing buildings and their future prospects?’ Energy Policy, 36(12), 4462-4470.

Rutherford, J and and Coutard, O (2014) ‘Urban Energy Transitions: Places, Processes and Politics of Socio-technical Change’ Urban Studies 51(7) 1353-1377

Sims (2012) ‘Breakdown, obsolescence and repair: Drivers of Change in urban infrastructure’. Conference paper presented at the International Retrofit Conference, Manchester 2012

Star, S. L. (1999). ‘The ethnography of infrastructure.’ American behavioral scientist, 43(3), 377-391.

Torrance, M. (2009) ‘Reconceptualizing urban governance through a new paradigm for urban infrastructure networks’, Journal of Economic Geography 9: 805-822.

While, A., Jonas, A.E.G., Gibbs, D., (2010) ‘From sustainable development to carbon control: eco-state restructuring and the politics of urban and regional development.’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 35 (1), 76–93.

Logan, Steven, York University
Transportation as Transformation: A Media Analysis of Infrastructure
This paper takes as its starting point Pierre Filion's (2013) claim that infrastructure can be understood as media, albeit an unconventional one. Filion draws on the work of Marshall McLuhan (1964), who claimed that the message of any medium is the “change of scale or pace or pattern” it introduces into everyday life (24). This allowed McLuhan to expand his definition of media to include electric light, cars, and roads. Approaching transport infrastructure as media means examining it as part of a relational field of interactions with other technologies that creates a new environment for mobility. Filion argues that although transport infrastructure is ostensibly about transporting people quickly and efficiently from one point to the next, the message of transport infrastructure is rather the environment that is created, an environment that is suburban. As Filion argues, “the suburb is infrastructure.”

This paper seeks to build on and expand this understanding of infrastructure as media, with the aim of thinking about infrastructure in new and productive ways. This paper does not limit itself only to McLuhan's thought, but draws on recent work in media studies that brings the non-symbolic, material aspects of communication to the forefront of analyses. A media analysis of infrastructure draws attention to the qualitatively different experiences of space and time that arise with the new environment. Here, the scale, pace and pattern of technologies of transportation and their infrastructure—walking, cycling, public transport, automobiles—constitute the character of suburbanisms. The paper will focus on specifically on the effects of infrastructure in the terms set out in the discussion paper: inequality and social norms.

In discussing media theory, I first look at how an analysis of infrastructure as media shifts the scale of the analysis. Instead of examining the content of media or the way individual people use technologies, media analyses of transportation and infrastructure look to the spatial and temporal environment that is created with the new technology. This rightly shifts the debate and the blame for sprawl, congestion, and other suburban problems away from the single objects—a car or a single-family suburban house—to the system and its infrastructure, which produces the need for these objects, which in turn perpetuate the need for the infrastructure.

McLuhan set out his media theory in direct opposition to the dominant theories of communication: the transmission or transportation model of communication. McLuhan offered a theory of communication that was about transformation not transportation. The latter is concerned with getting information, goods, people from one point to the next as efficiently as possible with minimal disturbance, while a transformation theory of communication is about how people are transformed in by the media they use. For the purposes of this paper, I build on McLuhan's idea of transformation by suggesting it applies to the built environment as well. Media transform people and the built environment.

But that does not at all happen evenly, an aspect McLuhan did not address; people experience what McLuhan called “speed-up” in different ways. In this next section of the paper, I want to turn to work that highlights the uneven ways in which the changes in scale, pace and pattern are experienced. This of course has important implications when considering the differences between transport infrastructure of the downtown or the Central Business Districts and the outlying areas, particularly when thinking about non-motorized forms of traffic like walking and cycling.

I want to further extend the reach of media theory and the different ways space and time are experienced by drawing links to Bruno Latour's work, who also used the concepts of transportation and transformation to sketch the multiple spaces and times that are produced in any given system (Latour 1997; Schabacher 2013). Like McLuhan, Latour points to two distinct experiences of space and time: transportation as the efficient and smooth travel through space, and; transformation as the consideration of the multiple entities, both human and non-human, that allow for transportation to happen at all.

With this theoretical sketch in mind, I will then turn specifically to some of the substantive issues in the discussion paper, and particularly the question of the effects of infrastructure on inequality and social norms, and how a consideration of these effects might influence the future trajectory of suburban infrastructures. In this part of the paper, I look at the relation between suburbanisms, and the infrastructure of automobiles and public transportation on the one hand, and walking, cycling and other self-powered forms mobility on the other. I draw on Ivan Illich's groundbreaking essay, Energy & Equity (1974), in which he argues argues that there are built-in inequities in the transportation system, which smothers people's ability to walk or cycle as part of their everyday activities, and promotes high-energy consumption for an elite few, and calls for huge public expenditures and increased social control. Following from the theoretical work on infrastructure as media, I want to turn to the bicycle, not as a sustainable version of automobility, nor a pedal-powered autonomous vehicle, but to think about the bicycle as media, as part of an infrastructure environment that does not simply alter the pace, scale and pattern of everyday suburbanisms, but that has the potential to do so in a socially equitable way. It also opens up a potential fruitful discussion and point of convergence between the infrastructure-heavy Global North and the “people as infrastructure” idea more prominent in the Global South.

Finally, in turning to a future trajectory of suburban infrastructure that does not privilege the car, I want to briefly discuss the question of the autonomous vehicle, raised by Pierre and Roger in their discussion paper, as having the potential to “revolutionize transportation in the suburbs.” I want to suggest that without considering the autonomous vehicle as an environment or media, it becomes a technological fix dictated by corporate interests (Google, Siemens, etc.), which does not take into account the way different social groups are marginalized by so-called revolutions in transportation and communication. As Sharma (2011) argues, the message of any medium is not simply how it changes urban space and time, but also the “temporal infrastructure” that accounts for the multiple ways in which these changes to space and time are experienced unevenly.

It is hoped that this paper's approach to infrastructure as unconventional media will help us to better understand and respond to possible future infrastructure configurations.

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