Why Canadian cities just generally suck

(Except you, Montreal. We still like you.)

Top image: The southwest corner of Wellington Street and Queens Avenue in London, Ontario, circa 1914 (via the London Public Library) and 2021 (via Google Street View).

Canadian cities, by and large, are not very good. A great many of them are just barely functional — aimlessly sprawling, difficult to traverse, with public transit at least a full generation behind where it ought to be. They can, at times, seem duct-taped together, with the infrastructure, at best, keeping just a half-step ahead of a growing population that constantly threatens to burst it.

And we like it this way. Or at least generally tolerate the situation, if there’s anything to be inferred from the sheer tenacity of the status quo.

At the same time, however, it doesn’t have to be this way. Better cities are possible! Some countries — quite a lot of them, actually — have even built them.

On this week’s CANADALAND, our audio editor, Tristan Capacchione, explores where things went so wrong with the country’s urban design, and what pulling ourselves out of that hole might look like:

Among those Tristan spoke to for the show was Jason Slaughter, a Canadian in Amsterdam, who runs the massively popular Not Just Bikes YouTube channel.

The following is an edited and condensed version of what Slaughter had to say about why things are so cruddy here.

I run Not Just Bikes, which has accidentally become the largest urban-planning channel on YouTube. I originally started it just to answer a very simple question: “Why did you and your wife move your family to the Netherlands?” 
That was the original point of the channel. And that’s where the name came from, because some people would say like, “Oh, it must be for the bicycles.”

But no, it’s not just bikes.

Originally, I’m from London, Ontario. I grew up there and then went to school at the University of Waterloo. I did the co-op there, lived in lots of different cities around Canada, as well as in the San Francisco Bay Area. I lived in Toronto after graduation. And then my wife and I both really wanted to live outside of Canada. And so we lived in the UK for a while, Taiwan, back to the UK, Belgium, back to Canada.

After living outside of Canada for so long, especially in walkable cities with functional public transportation, going back to Canada was very, very difficult. Basically, I was like, “I can’t do this. I can’t live back in a place where you can’t live your life without getting in a car.” So we started doing research as to where the perfect place was for us to live — where were we going to settle down and raise our children? We did some holidays to some different cities that we liked that we had been to before, and ultimately decided on moving to Amsterdam, because it’s just such a wonderful city. It’s not loaded with car traffic. There’s lots of interesting things to do within walking distance. It’s just a much higher quality of life that we get here than we ever got in Canada or in many other cities in the world that I’ve lived.

I have been to 61 countries. I had a job that required me to travel a lot, in the semiconductor industry and product management. Because I was travelling so much to so many different areas, I think that’s what radicalized me about city design. I could be somewhere like Houston, and then the next day, I’d be in Tokyo, and then a few days after that, I’d be somewhere in China. And then a few days after that, I’d be in Berlin. I saw the way people lived in different places.

At first I assumed, like a lot of people do, that the reason why all these cities were so different was due to culture or history or climate or topography or whatever. As I started learning more and more about urban planning, I learned that actually that’s not the case at all: the way our cities are designed really does come down to decisions that have been made, and are being made, about how the cities should be designed. That makes a huge difference in the way a city is, and the way that people there live and experience their lives.

“The reason you have this problem is because you designed your city wrong.”

There are some cities I’ve been to that are absolutely horrible places to be. 
Some of them are in Canada. And there are places that are wonderful. And the decisions that led to those places are decisions that we as citizens have a say over, and those are decisions being made on our behalf, whether we know it or not.

When I look at city design, there are very few things that Canadian cities do well.

Canadian cities, like American cities used to be compact, walkable. If you look at picture of Canadian cities a hundred years ago, they looked pretty much like European cities. That really upset me when I started learning about these things, because I grew up in London, Ontario, which is a pretty car-infested city and, and the downtown when I was growing up was always this kind of crappy place. But I’ve seen pictures of London, Ontario, from a hundred years ago. It was stunningly beautiful. And we bulldozed it. We bulldozed huge amounts of our downtowns and our walkable neighbourhoods in our efforts to make things more car-friendly. We ran large roads right through the centre of town. We ran highways everywhere. We sprawled out all over the place. And today, Canadian cities are horrendously ugly, for the most part. Transportation is incredibly difficult all over Canadian cities.

There are cities that have a quarter of the population of London, Ontario, and they’re full of life. They’re full of people on the street. They’re full of great independent restaurants, they got great public transportation, trams coming by every few minutes. They’re really wonderful places to be, and London, Ontario, is not.

I think the best Canadian city is Montreal. Perhaps Vancouver is up there, too, because it benefitted from never driving a highway through its city centre, which is extraordinarily rare in North America.

On “stroads”

“Stroad” is a horrible-sounding term, and that’s intentional. 
It’s a portmanteau of “street” and “road,” coined by Charles Marohn, the founder of an incredibly important nonprofit organization in the United States called Strong Towns. To understand this, you have to understand a road: a high-speed connection between point A and point B. At the other end of the spectrum, you have a street: the place where you’ll find houses and businesses, and there’ll be sidewalks and people cycling and walking around, where the life in the city happens. Streets are the destination, and roads are the way you get from one place to another place far away.

If you go around, say, here in the Netherlands, everything is either a street or a road. It’s very clear; like, you see one or the other. And in North America, we don’t do this. Stroads are everywhere in Canadian cities. A stroad tries to be both a high-speed connection between two places but also a destination. 
It’s usually four lanes or six lanes, usually has turning lanes. It’ll have a whole bunch of driveways to houses or businesses. 
It’s such a normal thing to see in a Canadian city that I think people almost don’t understand how you could not have them.

The problem is that stroads don’t work very well as roads. They have so many driveways and entrances and exits and cars merging in and out that they slow down traffic. They have these high speed limits, but you almost never get to that speed, because you’re constantly stopping. And they don’t act very well as a street, either. The best streets — like when you see streets in the old downtown centres that haven’t been bulldozed in Canada, or you see streets in Europe — are places where there’s a line of shops and you can walk from one to the other, and they’re very pleasant places to be. These are productive places where businesses do well, where they get a lot of foot traffic, where they bring in a lot of revenue for the city.

Stroads ruin that street concept. 
To handle all of those cars, you need giant parking lots in front of all the shops, which makes it incredibly difficult to walk there. Public transportation becomes difficult, because everything’s so spread out. Buses are always stuck in traffic. Stroads are extraordinarily expensive, too, because they, they have to be absolutely huge to carry the amount of traffic they need to carry. That stretches out all of the infrastructure — the roads, but also the electricity lines, the sewage, the water lines — all of this becomes very expensive.

On the futility of stop signs

Stop signs are ridiculous. They shouldn’t exist at all. It’s the traffic engineering equivalent of “We’ve we’ve thought of nothing, and we’re all out of ideas.”

A Google Street View look at the intersection of Edward Street and Duchess Avenue in London, Ontario.

The issue here [in a CBC story about a woman in London, Ontario, who started an online petition asking the city to convert an intersection in her neighbourhood from a two-way stop to a four-way stop, after a recent collision and multiple near misses] is not a stop sign. It’s the wrong solution to the problem. The issue with this street is the issue with so many residential streets in Canada and in North America: this street is wide and it is straight. This is something that came out of traffic engineering in the 1950s and the 1960s. One of the things that was discovered in the 50s was that on rural roads, it was much safer to have a street that was wide and straight, as opposed to one that was curvy. It gives drivers more room for error, and they’re less likely to get into a crash.

But a lot of that traffic engineering that was designed for rural roads was taken into built-up areas. And that has gone horribly wrong. Because one of the side effects that researchers in the 1950s and 60s never anticipated is that when drivers feel safer, when the road is wide and straight, drivers will drive faster.

The Netherlands went very car-happy in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, just like everywhere else, and built big, wide streets like this, too. But in the 70s, 80s, and especially the 90s, traffic engineers made a conscious effort to change these streets. What they do is purposely narrow them. They introduce curves. Because what happens is that when the streets are narrower, when there are curves, when there’s more complexity, people subconsciously slow down. The whole design of the street in a place like Sweden or the Netherlands is fundamentally different. There would be speed bumps put in and that would solve the speeding problem. Then at the intersection, no stop sign is needed at all.

This resident is gonna ask for a stop sign, but what’s inevitably gonna happen is that this road is still wide. It is still straight. People are still gonna drive too fast. And people are gonna run those stop signs. 
It happens all the time in Canada, which is exactly why stop signs do not solve this problem. This is a fundamental problem of road design, and a stop sign bandaid is not going to fix this.

Some kind of Wonderland Road

The reason why there isn’t a solution to this [a different transportation kerfufle in London, Ontario, this one a road-widening project that was suspended last year after a review determined it would only result in more car traffic, contrary to the city’s climate goals] is because the solution goes far beyond Wonderland Road. This is the fundamental issue with Canadian cities and why I think it’s so difficult to fix them.

There is no fix for just Wonderland Road. You cannot fix that situation in isolation. The reason you have this problem is because you designed your city wrong. You designed your city in such a way that puts a commercial area in one spot, a residential area in another spot, and an office area in a third spot, that are completely far away from each other and only accessible by driving. 
The actual solution is the solution that any urban planner in Canada will tell you: bring in mixed-use zoning, allow things to be closer to one another, allow things other than single-family homes to be built, get rid of parking minimums that require all those parking lots, make it easier to walk, cycle, and use public transit.

If I believed that Canadian cities could change in my lifetime, I wouldn’t have felt the need to leave. There are Canadian cities that are slowly making these changes, but they have to be much more drastic.

People don’t realize the Netherlands was very car-centric in the 1970s. One of the things they did was they created their road-design standards at a country level. And Canada could certainly do that at a provincial level, to build in that safety right from the start. They would make the standard based on modern research, so that as soon as you build a new road or resurface an old road (which happens every 25 to 30 years), you build it automatically to the new standard. And if you do that — which is what the Netherlands did — within 30 years, you have a safe city.

This is well-known, and has been for decades. We’re not doing it because these are difficult changes that push against the status quo. There may be developers that are used to building a certain way. There may be landowners who like it the way it is. These are things that we have to push back against.

Every urban planner I talk to says, “Yes! Yes! That’s what I’ve been saying for 30 years!” But we’re not doing it fast enough.

Once you know what a stroad is and why they’re dangerous, why they’re expensive, why they’re inefficient, you see them everywhere. And you’re like, why do we do it this way?

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