Rethinking Transportation Planning - Citizen Participation and Inner Suburban Social Justice in Toronto
This paper examines how to move towards a more socially just transit system in Toronto. Much of the conversation regarding transportation focuses on the needs of the downtown core. The needs of inner suburban residents, despite dependency on public transportation, are not fully taken into consideration in efforts to improve transit. Employing critical planning theory as a theoretical lens, I examine the transportation planning process with a focus on high-rise neighbourhoods in inner suburban districts by analyzing the transportation planning process of the Finch West Light Rail Transit (LRT) project. Examining mobility as a basic social justice issue reveals that the unequal distribution of transit services is connected to social and political processes that lead to uneven development and socio-spatial polarization in Toronto. The main objective of the paper is to identify the actors involved in the Finch West LRT planning process and the extent to which citizens have agency in transit planning in the context of the Finch West LRT planning process. I also seek to determine the role of politics in the decision-making process in urban planning, and finally, identify some strategies for the building of a socially just transit system. For my research, I undertook a review of urban planning literature with the goal of understanding the complexity of civic engagement, social justice and politics in relation to transportation planning. In addition, I conducted semi-structured interviews with politicians, planners and residents, analyses of key planning and transportation documents, observation of community meetings, and direct site observation of Finch West. My research uncovered key characteristics of inner suburbs that were present in Finch West, such as food deserts, physical decay, increased poverty, inadequate services, lack of employment, lack of a sense of safety, and high crime rates. My findings regarding transportation along Finch West reveal enormous congestion, large parking lots that discourage walkability, and a high dependency on public transport. The bus routes suffer from overcrowding with ridership over capacity, and reduced services on weekends. I conclude that the political instability at the municipal and provincial levels is an obstacle in creating a unified vision and subsequent plan for action. Furthermore, although citizens were informed of the Finch LRT plan, there were few opportunities to contribute to the consultation process at the beginning stages. Lastly, I suggest an approach to civic participation where planners and residents see themselves as both active educators and active learners. I suggest that transit does require a more equal distribution of goods across the city, and movement towards a socially just transit system would enable citizens to contribute to the decision making process to a greater degree than is currently conceived. I conclude that planning processes, when carried out in a critical manner, can address social disparity, and to do so, greater citizen participation is required.