Always Fresh, Always Better?

Early yesterday morning, while lurking on Twitter, someone posted a Tweet with a link to this article. It describes the near future of Tim Horton’s in Canada, such that there are plans to add approximately 700 new locations (to bring the total count to 4000 for the country) and a new line of food products.

Based on the photo posted with the article (reposted below), I immediately felt aggravated. Not only did the photo feature what appears to be an overweight employee pouring a coffee, my immediate assumption regarding new menu items was that they were going to be additional sweet, fatty, junk food to a an already saturated collection of offerings. Add to that, the majority of their new “espresso drinks” line up feature added sugar.

Reposted from TheStar.com

Image from TheStar.com article, featuring what appears to be a heavy-set Tim Horton's employee pouring a coffee.

I was surprised, but not pleasantly, to learn that the new food items they plan on adding are made-to-order panini sandwiches. It was better than another carb-and-fat heavy pasta dish or sweet dessert item, but at the same time, Tim Horton’s already serves toasted sandwiches, soups, bagels dressed in a variety of ways, and slew of breakfast sandwiches as well. Some locations even house a Cold Stone Creamery counter. How much more fat and salt do they really need?

Aside from that is the issue of adding 700 new locations. My gut feeling tells me that the majority of these locations are going to be placed in small towns and more rural-esque settings, based on the fact that experience tells me the major urban centers are already fairly saturated, and the article indicates they would like to “expand more” into Ontario and Western Canada. I’m torn about the new locations in a couple of different directions.

On the one hand, if my gut feeling is correct, and knowing what I do about the economy in general, small towns and rural areas are likely desperate for jobs. Tim Horton’s promises flexible shifts and benefits for their employees. Greater numbers of employed people in the population will mean more money put back into the local economy and could help revitalize the area.

On the other hand, however, are my concerns about the environment, and the general health of the local residents having greater access to fatty, sugary junk food on a constant basis. Tim’s supplies their locations from central warehouses, meaning all of the items must be shipped in by truck. The majority of their food and drink items leave in disposable packaging. Their coffee isn’t close to being ethically sourced. Then, of course, is the whole issue of the drive-through and the dozens and dozens of cars that will sit and idle during a morning rush — outside of the increased idle time as a panini sandwich is made to order. There’s no way that 700 new locations are going to improve the quick-serve coffee chain’s carbon footprint.

Canadians, in general, are not a very active people. We live in the suburbs, drive to work, and are getting heavier and unhealthier by the year. As a population, we don’t need increased access to fatty, salty, sugary convenience foods, since we have clearly demonstrated that collectively, we are unable to practice any sort of moderation. Areas of unemployment do tend to see heavier populations as well. Sure, Tim’s will be adding jobs, but they’ll also make it easier for the locals to give in and indulge in extra, unneeded calories. Don’t get me started on how the poor quality of the coffee almost requires a minimum addition of milk. The “regular” dressed coffee is, by default, a shot of cream and a shot of sugar.

In my opinion, Canadians do not need more Tim Horton’s. They need to be given the opportunities and the tools to start up their own coffee shops that source their food products locally, and the chance to serve ethical coffee if they so choose. They may, of course, choose to serve junk as well. That can’t be avoided. At least a local start-up would be established with community pride.

Having written all this, I know that Tim Horton’s is not in business to be aware of their carbon footprint, let alone care to take measures to reduce it. They aren’t in the business of caring about the health of their customers, either — quite the opposite. The cashier will always ask you if you want to add food to your drink order and in-store advertisements attempt to garner attention to “featured” products, and to up sell product “pairings”. (A recent ad I observed suggested a donut would “pair perfectly” with one of their new lattes.) No, Tim Horton’s is there to make money, and by doing so in a way they know works: serving coffee with cream and sugar, and fatty, sugary pastries.

I live in London, Ontario, where the creation of any kind of job is desperately needed. I have a hard time condemning any company that would endeavour to establish itself in smaller communities and provide much-needed jobs. However, I also have a hard time digesting the fact that these jobs come by way of an eco-unfriendly establishment such as Tim’s whose very business model is built upon making Canadians fat. It might be time to make small business loans and grants more accessible to entrepreneurs in our communities.

I should point out that I’m also aware of the fact that Tim’s does “give back” to the community in a number of ways, particularly with respect to children, with their Timbits hockey and the children’s camps whereby they send underprivileged kids to summer camp at no charge to the families. I don’t mean to paint Tim Horton’s as an evil, greedy company, who are extorting Canadians’ love of coffee and donuts for nothing more than their own gain. They do also, at least, offer their employees benefits, something a small business owner may not be able to do. In the spirit of sustainability, environmentally and econometrically, my vote will always be for the local business owner.

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Sure, I’ll Just Repeat Myself

Earlier this week, the London Transit Commission (or perhaps, more specifically, its director Larry Ducharme) made a big deal to announce the LTC is planning on adopting the Canadian Urban Transit Association’s Vision 2040.

Vision 2040 is an engaging, multi-division encompassing transit plan for cities whose main goals are to get cities to make the small changes now to shape a particular future for the year 2040. Here is a list, copied from the CUTA’s site, of the main points within Vision 2040 (emphasis is from the original):

  • Transit Vision 2040 is about putting transit at the centre of communities through stronger government policy and decision-making frameworks, and better community planning and design.
  • It is about revolutionizing service in all types of communities through expansion and innovation, so that transit systems can both encourage and serve growing demands as they keep pace with the changing face of cities and towns.
  • It is about focusing on customers and accelerating the delivery of flexible, integrated transit services that meet the needs of an increasingly diverse and discriminating clientele.
  • It is about greening transit to further reduce the industry’s ecological footprint, improve energy efficiency and limit greenhouse gas emissions.
  • It is about ensuring financial health through enhanced transit infrastructure and operating investments by all orders of government, more progressive approaches to generating revenue, and new efficiencies in service delivery.
  • Finally, it is about strengthening knowledge and practice so that Canada’s transit industry can more effectively respond to future opportunities and challenges.

None of those points are anything I wouldn’t stand behind as being important to the future of sustainable (and, really, enjoyable) transit. I’d also go so far as to argue that they need to each be implemented together, if the Vision is to come to fruition. In other words, they’re not each just individual goals or objectives that cities should just pick and choose between as they see fit or convenient. If the city of London, along with the LTC, can commit to Vision 2040, we could see transit revolutionized and for the better.

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In The News

Short post today to highlight some of the transit issues in a couple of major Canadian urban centers:

Halifax transit goes on strike. I followed the updates on Twitter (#Halifax, #transit) as the negotiations broke down and the transit union decided to strike. Transit users, particularly the staff and students at the post-secondary institutions in Halifax are encouraged to adopt alternative transit such as carpooling/ridesharing, as well as to attend a seminar on safe cycling in winter months.

The “Transit City” situation in Toronto remains murky. It came to light that Mayor Rob Ford did not have the legal authority to trash the Transit City plan. The current TTC chair, Karen Stinz, appears to have flip-flopped on her loyalties, though I can’t disagree that a compromise was worth proposing. No matter what personal intentions may or may not be, I must agree that something needs to change for the state of transit in Toronto to be improved, and it should start with who is planning it.

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Smartening Up

In the summer, it was reported that the London Transit Commission (LTC) was considering a bid for implementing a Smart Card fare system. It would appear that the Smart Cards were approved, and they could be in place as early as this fall.

Anything that a transit system can do in order to increase the convenience and security of its fare system is a move forward. The “Smart Card” system proposed would focus on a type of reloadable card, such that monthly pass users would only need to renew their passes rather than purchase a new card over and over. Even more convenient for the occasional, or ticket fare user, the card would be charged with a number of fares and reloaded as needed. This reload could potentially be done online.

In my experience, there are few things more frustrating than my local variety store telling me they’re out of bus tickets when I’m due to catch a ride. Then, of course, there’s the potential to lose the tickets I’ve already got somewhere in the bowels of my wallet. A reloadable card is not only efficient, it’s convenient for the user in many ways on top of being environmentally friendly as well.

With a change in fare handling increase ridership? More than likely it will not. I have posted many times about the numerous factors that need to be in place all at once not just to keep the existing transit users, let alone attract new ones. However, it is indicative that the LTC is moving forward by integrating technology into its operations when it can, and as appropriate.

Other cities with Smart card fare systems include Kingston, Oakville, and Vancouver.

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Transit Turmoil: Toronto

I have spent most of my life living in major urban centers, but not on the calibre of Toronto or Vancouver. Living in London, or Hamilton, a regular lamentation of its denizens regarding transit goes along the lines of “if the transit was good, like in Toronto, then I’d use it.” (I have pointed out the fallacy of this kind of thinking in a previous entry.)

The irony of that statement hits home, considering Rob Ford has actively worked towards decreasing transit service in the city. According to the article, he managed to destroy the “Transit City” plan for new light rail lines in favour of a subway line that would cost much more. Furthermore, the funding for the new project was supposedly going to come from private investors but instead will only be covered up to, at most, 30%. The article summarized the problem with this very well:

The bottom line: Ford rashly took a comprehensive and provincially funded transit plan and tore it up in favour of building a subway the city doesn’t need (the entirely underground Eglinton line) and a subway it can’t afford (the Sheppard line). Because the switch involved cancelling several already-signed contracts, it’s going to cost an estimated $65 million in penalties. That’s another $65 million that could have been invested in public transit but is instead being thrown away.

This is a blatant example of transit “plans” being made without the actual user in mind. (In fact, it would appear that Ford has made these plans to keep drivers from being too “inconvenienced”!) Transit users in the city are so disgruntled, they’ve established a movement called “Transit City Code Red”.

If anything, the transit planning troubles in Toronto prove that there is no “Transit Shangri-La” where it seems as though the grass is so much greener elsewhere, there’s no sense in even trying to improve the situation where ever it is you find yourself local. With any luck, “Code Red” will prove as well that it’s the users and their actions that will improve the state of things when they aren’t meeting the demands of the public it serves.

Of course, the last thing I should say is that, just because something may be difficult to attain, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be fought for! Here’s to fighting taxpayer and transit user apathy. Good luck, Code Red.

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Clever Endeavours

One of the approaches used to plan cities more sustainably is to do it “smart”. The “smart city” movement is broad, but in general terms is the use of land zoning, transportation infrastructure, alternative transit, and architecture together to plan and execute neighbourhoods to be as sustainable, healthy, and environmentally efficient as possible. Smart city neighbourhoods have buildings that encompass multiple uses (such as retail on the ground, with apartments overhead), street parking for cars, bike lanes separate from the roadways, and transit routes that run right through them. In fact, the layout of the neighbourhood itself is ideally designed around the transit system (and not the other way around, as is so common in nearly every city today).

One way of planning a smart neighbourhood, and an approach to “smart” that I hadn’t yet come across until this article landed in my inbox, is to focus on energy use or consumption of the buildings in any given neighbourhood. The article also describes monitoring of water consumption. As the article suggests, information such as this can lead to identifying energy inefficiencies in existing buildings and provide an overall consumption statistic for a given neighbourhood in a city. This allows for the retrofitting of older buildings to become more efficient as necessary, and to provide feedback on newer buildings to ensure they are operating as efficiently as expected.

The article also suggests that as mobile technology becomes more prolific and firms and organizations become better connected to their clients and customers, encouraging general efficiency in peoples’ every day lives. Transit commission apps allow for instant, real-time schedule information to be transmitted directly into a transit user’s hand, helping users plan their trips more effectively.

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New Year, New Direction

Faithful readers, I can admit I don’t update this blog nearly as often as I’d like. A combination of factors leads to this outcome, but the major one being a lack of local issues to blog about on a regular basis. Or, rather, newer issues — I could rant daily about the poor level of service, lack of customer respect, and other such topics I have expressed since last spring.

When I started this blog, I had originally intended to address urban, transit, and environmental issues from all over the place, and not just locally. Now that I am using Google Alerts a lot more efficiently, relevant articles come directly into my e-mail box daily for my review. I’d like to start making fairly regular posts with some links I at least find interesting, or demonstrative of the kinds of programs and approaches in action that I have blogged about.

One such example is integrating transit into new development, or as a major part of a re-development. San Francisco is one such city planning to develop a public space with an emphasis on its proximity to transit. Not just alternative vehicle transit, but also facilitating pedestrian traffic (by widening the sidewalks) and safe bicycle routes as well.

More locally, Ottawa is following the lead of cities like Toronto and Vancouver by increasing the housing density around the stops of the light rail transit. In doing so, it makes transit visible and easily accessible to the neighbourhood. No additional parking fees involved (ideally, no need to drive to the transit stop at all), and the reliability of safe, efficient transportation within minutes between leaving your house and standing on the terminal.

Stories such as these are encouraging since they demonstrate that not only are large urban centers thinking about ways to integrate and encourage more use of transit, plans are seriously in the works. Cities are becoming desperate to find ways to better use the space they have, since for some, sprawl is no longer a viable or sustainable option. Other concerns such as air quality and traffic congestion help push toward considering, and even applying, these “unorthodox” types of urban plans. My hope is that both these cities will go through with these plans and become examples of integrating transit for other communities as well.

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Essential For All

Published in the London Free Press on Saturday was a comment piece written by Joe Belanger. In about a week, the city will begin discussing the upcoming budget, and Belanger takes a strong stance against possible transit budget cuts.

Belanger eloquently and succinctly makes a number of points that I have discussed in other posts on this blog, particularly regarding service shortages, captive ridership, and how improving the situation with transit would benefit the city and the environment on a whole. He makes the point that I have many times before, that any change or delay in transit has very real effects on those who use and depend on it.

From my perspective, I have little to add to Belanger’s composition, particularly since I have blogged on each of those points on previous, and separate, occasions. I do, however, need to emphasize that transit is not just for those low income riders that depend on it — it’s essential for us all. It’s easy to read Belanger’s piece and take away from it that at the foremost, transit shouldn’t be cut because of the single mothers and elderly who need transit to travel in the city. I don’t believe that was his intention, but it does offer your friendly neighbourhood transit activist blogger a chance to comment on what would otherwise be a perfect piece.

Transit isn’t just an essential service for those who depend on it, it’s essential for the sustainability of the modern city. It shouldn’t be the afterthought added to existing networks or tacked on to expanding suburbs. Particularly in the case of London, it definitely should not have cuts made to it.

I laud Belanger’s piece for taking the perspective that the LTC apparently cannot, and that is to consider the individual rider as important. My big-picture approach, that transit affects us all, does not invalidate the fact that there are people whose every day lives depend on whether or not their bus is two minutes early or five minutes late. I do believe, very strongly, that if there were more a focus on the individual rider of the LTC, it would be that catalyst for change regarding how everyone perceives a transit system, from its riders to those who take care of operating it. Changing how those who live in the city think about transit, along with integrating it with new development and making it a priority rather than an afterthought, is the key to the success of transit — and ultimately, the economic and environmental health of the future city.

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The Myth of “Free” Parking

Recently, there has been discussion in the London Free Press about the downtown and transportation, in general. A debate has been going on about whether or not to provide free parking in the core, versus implementing a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line or two or simply increasing the standard transit. In today’s edition of the LFP, a mish-mash of reader responses as well as from city counsellors and others was published.

I’ll start with the positive: a BRT system seems to be heavily favoured and encouraged, and it would be very interesting to see such a thing implemented in London. If I had a way of getting from south London, up to the Masonville area, in less than a couple of hours, I’d probably never have to use a car to get anywhere in this city at all. Many other major cities, including Hamilton, at least have a couple of “express” bus routes that cross the city in a much smaller amount of time than the standard routes, and while not exactly a BRT, these routes crank up the efficiency of crossing a fairly sizeable distance. It’s perfect for students, in particular, but would obviously benefit a number of others, too. I should add that in my opinion, BRT would most benefit the smaller communities just outside of London (e.g. Byron or Lambeth). If the intention is truly to connect White Oaks to Masonville, an express transit route is most likely the best way to go.

Now, unfortunately, comes the harsh reality: free parking is never really “free.” A number of responses to the downtown parking conundrum indicate that drivers would like to see more free parking. One writer in particular indicated that she would never pay to park and shop downtown when she can park at the mall “for free.”

It’s true that you aren’t forced to pay out of pocket to pull your car into a mall parking lot, and, essentially, welcome to leave it parked there for as long as you please. However, you are still paying to park there, simply indirectly — all the stores in the mall are paying rent for the space, and that goes towards the upkeep of the parking lot (among other facilities). Therefore, integrated into anything that you buy, is the cost of parking your car in the lot.

Customers, then, such as myself, end up contributing as well, even though I almost exclusively walk or bus to the mall.

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A Beach Of A Plan

City planners in dear old London, Ontario, have released an incredible vision for a large-scale “renovation” of the downtown. It would involve large areas dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists, some new office towers, and an urban beach.

It’s a little overwhelming.

Downtown London currently has some very beautiful parkscapes, a number of shopping and entertainment attractions, restaurants, clubs, and pubs, and as a professional pedestrian it is my opinion that it is a very walk-able core. However, since so very few people use alternative transit to even travel into the core, narrow streets and parking is an issue. Additionally, what they call the transit “hub” at Dundas and Richmond is an unattractive collection of bus stops with an electronic sign, with no real access to information, and is so busy with so little upkeep, I even find myself uncomfortable hanging around as I wait for my bus. Not to mention, only a few of London’s many bus routes even stop there.

I’m not sure how I truly feel about the “new vision.” At first, I was entirely disbelieving that they were at all serious about the fact that they could, possibly, turn downtown into the computer-generated artist’s rendering on the front page. Most of my objections stemmed from the true usefulness of an urban beach, but the rest, as you can imagine by now, was the lack of integrated transit into the vision. There appears to be a new parking garage and a number of walkways and bike paths, but at this point I have to assume I’d be getting off the bus on Wellington or Richmond street and then having to walk down.

My proposal for an amended plan would be to integrate a true transit hub, where covered stops and a number of routes would convene, in a convenient part of the new plan. This hub would be exclusive to transit as well, meaning the bus would drop you off within the area closer than you could park your car. For example, directly in front of the doors to the JLC, or deep within the pedestrian esplanade where the park or the urban beach could be reached within minutes. This would not only encourage those who don’t drive to spend more time downtown knowing they would be dropped off closer to where they would like to go, it would also provide incentive for those who only come downtown for a specific purpose (a hockey game or concert, for example) to choose transit. The monetary cost of the bus fare would add up to be much less than the cost of parking a car, and there would be a significant time savings if one did not then have to walk three or four blocks after having stepped off the bus.

A fully integrated transit plan for the new vision is incredibly important. It not only would result in greater foot traffic past the numerous small shops and restaurants located in the core, encourage the use of alternative transit more often thus reducing emissions and improving air quality, it also would make London stand out in a collection of modern urban centers trying valiantly to become more eco-conscious and, of course, revive itself. It would demonstrate very strongly to Londoners, and those in the surrounding area attracted to the city, that the city is committed to encouraging the use of alternative transit and “green” thinking.

What the majority of the commentators on the article fail to realize is that the vision is not exactly a plan. The Mayor is quoted as saying it is what London “aspires” to be, which, to me, indicates they are looking for a way to draw people into the core and encourage more use of alternative transportation modes. Only time will tell which parts of the vision come into play.

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