New light-rail system could leave disadvantaged Ottawans in the lurch: transportation summit

A summit examining transportation equity considers how to reverse transit planning that doesn't consider the people who need it most.

A city-hosted summit examining how to make sure the people who need public transit get it

A map showing the expected 'walkscore' — a measurement intended to illustrate how easy it is to perform everyday tasks on foot — of the Ottawa light rail stations set to open in 2018. (City of Ottawa)

Ottawa housing advocates and urban planners worry the new light-rail system will inadvertently make neighbourhoods inaccessible to the very people the LRT was meant to benefit.

About 200 people, including community advocates, city planners and elected officials took part Friday in a summit called "Transportation Equity" hosted by EnviroCentre and The Healthy Transportation Coalition, which examined the possible consequences when the needs of some of Ottawa's most vulnerable communities are not considered in planning.

Ray Sullivan of the Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corp. said the city needs to marry planning for transit with planning for affordable housing.

"What's at stake here is adding to an already crisis level of affordability," said Ray Sullivan, Executive Director of the Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corp., an organization that provides low-income housing and advocates for affordable housing. 

"What we're not seeing is the city of Ottawa connecting transportation planning and affordability planning," said Sullivan, adding there are concerns that without a deliberate plan, people who need the new LRT won't be able to live anywhere near it.  

A couple hundred people attended a city-hosted summit on transportation equity, making sure city decisions consider disadvantaged populations. (Amanda Pfeffer)

"Where you're building an LRT station, you're automatically driving up property values," said Sullivan, noting the city is planning to increase housing density in those areas. But it's not just about what we're building, but who we're building it for. Who's going to live there?"

Housing values around LRT stations already going up

The first phase of the LRT system is due to be up and running next year, with the next phase to extend the system already in the works. Some of the communities around the proposed stations are already seeing housing prices start to climb. 

The neighbourhoods west of downtown along the LRT, for instance, through Hintonburg, Wellington West, and Westboro, have already seen some of the highest housing value increases this year. 

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper discusses challenges facing the City of Ottawa's transit system with the Transportation Equity Summit keynote speaker, Sean Hertel. (Amanda Pfeffer)

"We have seen some of the largest property value increases in the city," said Kitchissippi Ward Coun. Jeff Leiper who said there will be five LRT stations in his ward by 2020. 

Wild-west planning

"If we leave it to wild-west planning, if we don't think about the link between transit and affordable housing, what we're going to be doing is exacerbating the process of gentrification that we're already seeing in these neighbourhoods," said Leiper.

"We're putting [LRT] into communities without planning for those communities so that vulnerable populations, economically disadvantaged populations get to stay there," said Leiper. 

The research of Sean Hertel, a planner and researcher at the City Institute at York University, shows that Toronto's rapid transit rapid system doesn't serve the majority of the clients who most need that system.

"The cost of not investing in transit equity and service is actually cheaper than not doing it," argued Hertel, who delivered the key-note speech at the Friday event. 

"Transit is literally the gateway into the economy and the society, "said Hertel. "Think of access to jobs, access to English as a second language courses, think of access to education and training," said Hertel. 

City has zoning tools to zone for affordable housing

The province has brought in changes to the Planning Act which would give cities the ability through something called inclusionary zoning, which would require builders to include affordable housing units.

Coun. Keith Egli, chair of the Transportation Committee said the city has not used inclusionary zoning to date, but he called Friday's event a "good first step" in considering equity issues in planning.  

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli, chair of the transportation committee, called Friday's summit "a good first step" in learning how to include equity in the city's transportation planning. (CBC)