The Use of Space


How much space do you take up?

Well, you think: you're 5'10" tall, weighing around 200 pounds, you have a waist size of about 32 inches... but that's not all.

You live in a house, with about 1000 square feet of floor space. You go to work every day, and you spend entirely too much of your time in an 8x8 cubicle. So, now your personal space is around 1100 square feet. It's shared with other people, of course, but it exists because of you.

Now consider the space that your car takes up. Most cars are seven to eight feet wide, twelve feet long. They occupy a patch of road several miles in length as you travel to and from work. Thus, consider how much space you occupy after an hour-long commute every morning rush hour.

Planners are obsessed with space. Our raison d'etre is to house people, to give them space to live, to move, and to interact. People need space. From the 1940s to the present day, we've felt that everybody deserves wide open private spaces, but now we're coming to see that space is limited. We are pushing out the wrong kind of space by sectioning off and bulldozing space for large houses surrounded by large lawns, and the transportation infrastructure able to serve these vast stretches of personal private space.

We know the problems of urban sprawl; not least of which is the problem of automobile congestion. Public transport used to be the most efficient mover of people because there were a lot of people around the space in which it had to move. But as people took more space for their own, public transit had to travel farther, and serve fewer people, and so it ceased to be profitable enterprise. From the 1950s onward, only the private automobile was capable of being at one's beck and call as one moved from space to space. To make space available for automobiles, we've devoted more space to roads, and highways, making other modes of transportation even less efficient, perpetuating the sprawl that threatens to choke out our natural spaces.

But while discussing transportation policy with someone, I hit upon a revelation. Planners, in order to protect natural spaces, generally tend to advocate increased densities. Low density subdivisions wasted too much space, so higher densities would redress the balance, it was as simple as that. Only it wasn't as simple as that. We are forgetting the space that we require to travel to and from our homes, our shops and work.

If we can convince more people to get out of their cars and take public transit, we would be increasing the efficiency of our transportation space. No longer would every second car seat ride empty. Road spaces that would have to be 26 lanes wide in order to carry rush hour traffic could be shrunk down to two sets of railway tracks, with trains passing at two minute intervals. But it's not only the width of our transportation space that is pushing out all other space, it's the length. Why should distances of tens of miles separate our homes, our schools and our workplaces, when we could shorten this to mere miles?

My friend and I were having a long debate about the problems plaguing the TTC. In his opinion, the TTC needs more express buses. He lives in Scarborough, and it takes him almost an hour to travel by rapid transit downtown. He notes, with considerable chagrin, that :GO Transit: passengers, if they happen to live next to the station in Port Credit, could be at Union in 28 minutes. Why can't the TTC run express buses between the Scarborough Town Centre to Union Station in order to give him the same travel time?

When planners separated land uses to prevent houses from being placed next to toxic spewing industries, we established a commuter culture. It was expected that we would travel to work. When it became too long to walk, horse cabs and then streetcars transported us. This fed a desire to push ourselves away from the hurly-burly of city living to more open space in the suburbs.

But we were still tethered to our work. For a while, most people lived within a ten minute walk of a streetcar line; the automobile made it possible to live anywhere on a map, but there was always a limit to how far we could travel. The expectation was that we wouldn't need to travel any longer than thirty minutes to get home.

As cities grew, the distances between residences and workplaces increased. Travel times of an hour are now expected in Toronto, and travel times of two hours are not uncommon. But nobody seems to have realized that by putting ones' places of work all in a central location (or locations), and one's places of residence some distance from those locations, is a problem of its own.

A car commuter living in Milton can expect, on good days, to be in their downtown office in fifty minutes. Does a car commuter living in downtown Toronto expect to hop onto an expressway and be at their place of employment in five minutes? Not often. We expect or have come to accept some travel time between our home and work. Most of us don't want to live right next to or above our workplace. The construction of expressways, therefore, and of express commuter lines is designed not to get us to work faster, but to get us to work over longer distances within a reasonable length of time. As that "reasonable length of time" becomes more and more unreasonable, then the problem is not going to be solved by increasing the capacity and speed of the transportation infrastructure. The problem is that we've stretched the distance between home and work too far. Rather than concentrating on travel time, we should be concentrating on travel distance. And this doesn't just mean that we have to build things taller and denser. Diversity is the real key to saving our cities.

Throughout Toronto's low density suburbs, high density pockets exist. Consider the high rises of Jane-Finch and northern Etobicoke. These house a lot of people in little space, which is efficient and may even be good (depending upon the design of those spaces), but people have to work, and they have to go to school, and shop and, by and large, these places are not within walking distance of these high density neighbourhoods.

The older areas of Toronto, from Parkdale to the Beaches have densities lower than some of the high-rise complexes in the suburbs, but they're not masses of a single land use. People in Jane-Finch hoping to go to work in the North York City Centre all have to pile on buses or into cars running along an expressway, which operate at capacity from beginning to end. By comparison, each stop on the Queen streetcar line serves a home, a shop, and a place of employment, meaning that at every stop there are people who wish to get on, and people who wish to get off. Along the route, a single Queen streetcar can serve as many people as twenty Finch West buses.

This is the truly efficient use of space: not the space you take up by standing, or living in a big single-family house (although that has a lot to do with sprawl), but also the length of your trip between the spaces you live in. The increase in the number of possible destinations within a shorter distance will, far more than any new highway or subway, decrease commuter congestion. It is the path of diversity that we must strive to follow, for the health of all of our spaces.

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