Kicking our addiction to cars will help ensure healthy cities

Better public transit, tougher land-use planning needed: PM's urban guru Hamilton Spectator Feb., 25, 2004

Pushing Canadians to kick their addiction to cars is critical to ensuring healthy cities that don't destroy the environment, Prime Minister Paul Martin's pointman on urban issues said yesterday.

That means better public transit, along with disincentives such as more expensive vehicles and tougher land-use planning, John Godfrey said.

Elsewhere in Toronto yesterday, David Caplan, Ontario's minister responsible for infrastructure, preached the need for long-term planning in a speech to the province's municipal leaders.

But many appeared skeptical, fearing more "red tape" would stifle economic development. They were also impatient about the slow provincial response to providing help with urgent municipal needs.

In his speech, Godfrey said: "The biggest challenge we're going to face in the country is the way in which people use automobiles. It's a challenge which we have to confront head-on and have a big discussion about because people have tremendous values embedded in the way in which they use their cars and the way in which they choose to make their real estate decisions."

Godfrey, whose comments came between sessions of a symposium put on by the prime minister's national roundtable on the environment and the economy, gave no details on what Ottawa might do to get Canadians out of their cars.

Chaired by former B.C. premier Mike Harcourt, the travelling advisory panel hopes to make recommendations to Martin in time for next year's budget on how to bring about his promised "new deal" for cities.

Harcourt said he's confident provincial governments will play ball and he'll be able to provide the prime minister a detailed road map by the end of November.

Godfrey said this spring's budget will jump-start the process by "fleshing out" details of the government's throne speech, such as scrapping the GST for municipalities and their agencies and a speed-up of infrastructure spending.

But he said Ottawa can't simply start handing infrastructure money to cities without some kind of agreement that the provinces and territories won't grab the cash.

Harcourt said federal money could flow immediately to cities in those provinces that do come to an agreement without waiting for others to do the same.

Several provinces, including British Columbia and Ontario, will likely have their 10-year infrastructure programs ready by the end of the year so cities such as Vancouver and Toronto could start seeing real cash, Harcourt said.

The advisory panel is also looking at numerous urban issues such as immigrant-reception programs, helping aboriginal drug addicts, child poverty, and housing for homeless.

Speaking for the province, Caplan told a joint conference of the Rural Ontario Municipal Association and the Ontario Good Roads Association: "We have to plan for the next two decades, not just the next election cycle."

The Public Infrastructure Renewal Minister said it's predicted Ontario's population may swell to 16 million within a generation, and most of the growth will occur in the Toronto-Niagara Falls-Barrie triangle of southern Ontario.

But some delegates were more concerned about money to fix today's problems.

"What's the provincial government going to do today?" asked Port Hope Mayor Rick Austin. "We like a long-term plan, but we need help today."

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