Taking the road less travelled, it appears, is hard for a government to do. It's easier to spend $2 billion on a Move Ontario budget, funding transportation infrastructure that will go nowhere fast.
The concrete reality is that Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan has merely learned the hype of what passes for transportation economics.
Dressed up in steel-toed boots to deliver his first budget on March 23, he claimed that "quick, reliable, safe transportation is vital to our economic success. It's also essential to our quality of life."
Premier Dalton McGuinty, who used to say such things about knowledge when emceeing an education-centred budget, got into the steel-toed swing. "The ability to move people and goods efficiently," he lectured Mississauga transit workers the next day, "is at the heart of our modern economy."
Though these statements seem like painfully inane clichés, that's no excuse for ignoring their economic and environmental foolhardiness.
Not that any of the pundits seem to mind. This is a reminder that the notion of motion is sometimes all it takes in politics, especially if there's a fantasy that stirs memories of boyhoods spent playing in the mud and sand with Dinky toys. Any budget that claims it will spend $2 billion on digging tunnels and building roads, even if partners still need to be found to put down two-thirds of the costs before much happens, is going to get a free ride from the media.
But the infrastructure centrepiece of the budget - $670 million to expand the Spadina subway, $400 million to repair roads and extend highways 404 and 410, a commitment to extend the 427, plus $160 million for GTA bus travel - got every fundamental of smart economic, environmental land use and social planning wrong.
But aren't subways and buses sustainable, green items?
Good smoke-and-mirror politics is all about planting decoys just like that. Public transit is a loss leader for car-based transport. The ploy starts with a subway line that pays a $2 billion subsidy to cars by tunnelling underground so vehicles above don't have to give up a lane to low-cost, high-speed street rail.
But to get to the system-wide underpinnings: cars thrive in mobility-dependent cultures and economies. There is no alternative to the car, or to the polluting fuel in its tanks, as long as the society and economy are transport-dependent.
You're not going to walk or bike to many places if your job is 40 kilometres away, your food and video stores 6 kilometres away and your entertainment 16 kilometres away from home. This is almost inevitable when the GTA is seen as the "seamless" planning unit the budget proclaims, where people will work or play downtown and live in the old blah yonder of exurbia.
Walking and cycling are especially off limits if you're old, tired or rushed off your feet. Cars, after all, are designed for people who are rushed off their feet.
Almost by definition, walking, cycling and public transit cannot be everyday mobility alternatives in a sprawl society dependent on mobility. That's because everything you need is far away and nothing you need is at a central place where public transit can afford to go at times that meet your busy schedule.
Public transit, walking and biking can only thrive where they're part of an alternative to mobility, not just a mobility alternative. This is the essence of Transit 101 for the 21st century.
Australian street planner David Engwicht has argued for the last decade that the focus of planning, land use and economics has to be on access, not mobility. Access is the end, mobility is one means, and a failed means at that - as decades of building more roads that cause worse traffic jams have shown all but government transportation planners.
How do we get geographical accessibility to jobs, goods, friends, good times? That's the job best done by "access infrastructure," which helps us reduce trips. That means, for example, encouraging large chains to offer job transfers to their workers so they can pump gas, wrap burgers or sell sweaters down the street instead of at a location across town.
Sweden is moving away from "transport dependence," according to The Natural Step For Communities: How Cities And Towns Can Change To Sustainable Practices, by Sarah James and Torbjorn Lahti. Busy main streets are a classic example of access infrastructure that reduces travel. Power malls and box stores, on the contrary, require mobility and taxpayers to pay for it.
Boosting the number of trips not taken means that all workers who rely on phones and computers should work from home at least once a week. Transport moves atoms, but the new access infrastructure moves electrons, energy guru Amory Lovins likes to say.
Transportation eats a lot of social resources to create boom-bust jobs - not a good use of public money, since Ontario is in the most serious meltdown of its history, having lost over 100,000 once-stable industrial jobs over the last year and a half alone. Further, transportation exports jobs to other jurisdictions; listen to that sucking sound of billions of dollars leaving the Ontario economy to buy oil and gas from Alberta.
Access infrastructure subsidizes farmers to sell at local farmers markets instead of subsidizing them to sell for export.
That's exactly what the Greater Toronto Area's Greenbelt, as well as Ontario's second-biggest employer, agriculture, needs. It'd be a little bit smarter than expanding highway 427 through farmland so we have to import food from afar and subsidize more farmers to export overseas.
The simple fact is that there is no future - and that means no future in the near future - in a transportation-based economy or society. Both peak oil and global warming tell us it's time to move on to infrastructure policy for the 21st century, which will be about finding substitutes for transportation as ways to get things moving - or rather, happening.
In a restless culture that heaps praise on go-getters who move up and are going somewhere, that will take some doing.