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Steve Lafleur: The Liberals have kneecapped the carbon tax. Now we need walkable cities more than ever

Commentary

So long, carbon tax. Hello, urban planning.

Government policymaking is messy. It often involves a mess of compromises that lead to marginally effective policies, or worse. It’s not often governments identify a high-profile problem and implement the textbook economic solution without compromises. That’s what made Canada’s carbon tax so surprising. If you put ten randomly selected economists in a room and told them to reduce carbon emissions, they would have come up with something very close to Canada’s carbon tax. We had the textbook solution. Unfortunately, the textbook just went out the window.

The Trudeau government’s decision to exempt home heating oil from the carbon tax is perhaps the most notable departure from the carbon tax. The carbon tax will still remain in force, but the credibility of the policy is in question. After all, if they’re willing to make exceptions to carbon pricing now, it’s easy to envision them deciding to temper future increases steep enough to ratchet down carbon emissions. And, of course, it might not survive a change of government. As one of Canada’s foremost proponents of carbon pricing, Andrew Leach, noted, “We’re probably into the regulation and industrial policy era now.” 

Now, I don’t know precisely what this new era will look like. I suspect that, like Alberta, the federal government will decide to keep carbon taxes on large emitters even if there’s a change of government. But it doesn’t seem that even the Liberals are willing to rely on carbon taxes as the primary method of reducing household greenhouse gas emissions.  

My suggestion for policymakers looking for a path forward: focus on better urban planning. Where people live and how they get around are some of the most consequential decisions when it comes to greenhouse gases. If we want people to pollute less in their day-to-day lives, we should build more traditional, walkable neighbourhoods—the kind of neighbourhoods this country was built on. Thanks to one-size-fits-all urban planning, precious few of those neighbourhoods exist today.

I want you to think about some of the older neighbourhoods in your city. The places where young people want to move, but can’t afford to. Every city has got a few. Kitsilano, West Queen West, Kensington, Osborne Village, Centretown, Schmidtville, and so on. What do they have in common? Each of them has a diversity of housing types—townhouses, duplexes, walk-up apartments. Most day-to-day amenities are within walking distance, and there are plenty of shops and restaurants and some entertainment options nearby.

There are also a number of transportation choices ranging from bike lanes to car lanes. Urbanists love to wax poetic about these neighbourhoods, but there’s nothing fundamentally special about them. They’re just the type of normal, full-service communities that we built since the dawn of human settlement. That is, until modern zoning codes came along and made this type of development illegal in most places.

Illegal might seem like a strong word. But most Canadian communities were only zoned for detached houses. That means that once you’ve filled it with detached houses, there was no way to add more housing. So they lost rather than gained population. Only the most affluent Canadians can afford to live in these once-working-class neighbourhoods.

Since we haven’t been able to build additional housing units in most high-amenity urban neighbourhoods, people have had to move further and further out to communities that are harder to service with transit. This has meant that many of the households that are least able to pay for cars are entirely dependent on them. Faced with declining affordability and worsening commutes, they could use more housing and transportation options.

Looking forward, any government that is serious about decarbonization is going to have to allow more traditional, walkable communities to be built. That doesn’t just mean in Downtown Toronto or Vancouver. We also need to make it easier for people in smaller cities to get around without a car or, at the very least, to be able to commute to work without sitting in traffic. 

The federal government has started to do its part, using the Housing Accelerator Fund (HAF) to convince municipalities to legalize more housing options. But that’s really setting a baseline. We need big cities to do more than the bare minimum. The basic standard for the HAF appears to be four units on a single lot as of right (e.g. no rezoning required). That’s a very good start for a city like London or Kelowna. It’s not enough for big cities in the GTA. Edmonton recently voted to allow eight units as of right. That’s a serious approach if we want to open up lower-carbon living to more people. We also need to build more pockets of high-density outside of major cities. A few downtown cores won’t be able to accommodate all of the country’s growth, after all.

We also need to end our obsession with separating uses. In other words, creating a neat division between commercial and residential uses. Zoning was initially premised on keeping polluting factories out of residential neighbourhoods. That’s a valid goal. But it’s not the 1950s anymore. Smoke-spewing factories are not the default employer anymore. Mixing commercial, retail, and residential uses creates great communities. There are attempts to rebuild this type of community, usually surrounding transit stations, but it should be the default rather than the exception. There’s no reason why someone in a cul-de-sac should be forced by the zoning code to hop in his car to get a loaf of bread or grab a coffee. 

Of course, not everyone is going to live in Toronto or Vancouver. Nor should they. Within the GTA, Lower Mainland, and other large urban areas, there are many municipalities big and small. Even in an era of flexible work, a lot of people in those communities have to commute to the office a few times a week. In many cases that means they’re spending an hour or more in traffic every day. Unless we give commuters more people alternatives to driving, we’re just going to keep funneling more and more cars into our downtown cores, worsening traffic congestion and vehicle emissions. The only thing we can really do (other than charging tolls or congestion fees, which are even less popular than the carbon tax) is give people more options to avoid traffic. 

Fortunately, there’s movement on this file as well—particularly in the GTA. People might not intuitively associate Doug Ford with public transit, but his government is funding and overseeing big buildouts of transportation not only in cities but also between cities. The Ontario Line and Scarborough subways in Toronto are the two highest profile examples, but there are also several LRT lines both in Toronto and other GTAH cities such as Mississauga that are in progress. That will make it easier to build the type of walkable neighbourhoods that are in such short supply. 

Then there’s the GO Transit buildout. As Metrolinx adds new lines and increased frequency, it’s getting easier for people commuting into Toronto to bypass traffic. That will also help decarbonize the GTAH economy both by requiring less emissions per passenger and also by avoiding adding more cars into the regional traffic jam. You can already see some people’s transportation decisions change as the GO buildout progresses. We need to do more, and faster.

Now, I’m not saying that better urban planning is a perfect substitute for carbon taxes. Far from it. I’m a free market guy. If it was up to me, we’d just tax externalities and let the market sort things out. That’s not the political world we live in. Fortunately, there are many ways to reduce greenhouse gasses. Better urban planning is the low-hanging fruit. We should pick it. 

‘The promotion or endorsement of violence should be where that line is drawn’: The best comments from Hub readers this week

Commentary

As the Israel-Hamas war rages on into another week, The Hub has continued to explore and contextualize how the war has affected the diasporas in Canada and the reactions from our government.

The goal of Hub Forum is to bring the impressive knowledge and experience of The Hub community into one place and with that in mind, here are some of the most interesting comments this week.

Sign up for our daily Hub Forum email newsletter today.

As war rages, we’re standing in the crumbling ruins of the academic Left

Monday, Oct. 23, 2023

“Israel’s response to Hamas’ massacre is understandable. But I can’t help thinking a more centrist Israeli government might’ve led to peace talks sooner, thereby avoiding thousands of innocents’ deaths and a full scale war.

Unfortunately, warring is an extremist game, and we’re dealing with extremists.”

Solange

“Open, civil, fair, and democratic societies that value a free market of ideas, of which universities should be the epitome, are best positioned to keep such power-seekers in a place commensurate with the quality and appeal of their “ideas”. That is, forever at the very margins.”

Rob Tyrrell

Israel’s civic strength in response to the Hamas attacks should stiffen Canada’s spine

Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023

“I think Canada should have offered Israel peace keeping units to assist on their Northern border as an added deterrent to Hezbollah and a not the symbolic we stand with “Israel to defend itself” with the caveat to do so in “accordance with International law”.”

Mike Ruddell

“While Israel is not without fault, the root cause of this 75 year Nakba is the failure of the Palestinian leadership to accept reality and put their people first. There is no reason that the Palestinians should not have a standard of living, education, a welfare system, and the hope that Israeli children aspire to.”

Ned

‘I knew I had to get back as soon as possible’: Why this Canadian-based Israeli hurried back home to fight in the war

Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023

“We did, however, keep some details from the kids and instead said that I had to go back home to help my mother who lives in Ashdod.”

Heartbreaking but heroic stuff. This piece really underscored to me the extent to which Israel really is the Jewish people’s only option and they won’t, with good reason, let it fall or fail.”

Luke Smith (Deputy Editor, The Hub)

Censuring an NDP MPP for pro-Palestine comments is not a free speech issue

Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023

“True, Hamas committed heinous crimes but that doesn’t absolve the Israelis from the madness they are following in the name of self defense. To block humanitarian aid, to displace millions of people and deny them the basic needs for life, is not defense. We might not like what we hear when Israel is criticized but when a government or party silences a member, it is a strike against free speech and each strike weakens that right until it no longer exists. When social conservatives speak out against inclusion or threaten the well being of the transgendered, as in Saskatchewan or New Brunswick, no one questions their right to say what they think even if it is harmful. It is either free speech for all or no free speech at all. Let Jama have her say but work to show that it is not what the party believes. There is a danger when government censures members.”

A. Chezzi

“I am concerned about the potential for overreaction as those supporting Israel could adopt the cancel culture tactics successfully wielded by the social justice movement in recent years. Limits on free speech, even informal ones imposed by society at large, need to be very cautiously applied. If someone is concerned about free speech in other cases, such as parents being shut out at School Board meetings for questioning gender ideology or critical race theory inspired lessons, he or she should also be concerned about the free speech of even those they disagree with strongly.

However, there can be point at which speech has consequences. I would say the promotion or endorsement of violence (actual violence; not the imaginary kind) should be where that line is drawn.”

Gordon Edwards

The Left has a self-policing problem

Friday, Oct. 27, 2023

“In this particular case, it is unclear to me whether this issue of antisemitism is a left or right issue. May be it is a broader social issue, independent of political or social stripe. But with respect to the current conflict in the middle east, it is my point of view that we need to distinguish between three parties here: Israel, Hamas, Palestinians. Hamas is of course the terrorist group. Israel has clearly suffered from their attack. Based on the reports I have heard it appears Palestinians also suffer Hamas, and for many years. Palestine does not equal Hamas. Hamas does not equal Palestine. I think we need to be a little more nuanced in our understanding; I don’t assume people who voice concern about the Palestinian’s plight are supporting Hamas nor do I assume they are antisemitic. Bombing civilian populations is a questionable practice. Is it being proposed that two wrongs make a right?”

Bill Hertha

“The genesis of this Long March was obvious- to those willing to see – 20 years ago. It was apparent in things as simple as the speaker’s lists at teacher’s conventions, the radicalization of what once was a perfectly sensible LGBT movement, those chosen to lecture at journalism schools (as an aside I have offered my occasional services to those pro bono and been soundly rejected) etc. But none are so blind as those who will not see. Personally, and watching what can most politely be called the delicate response of our political class, I think it’s probably too late.”

Peter Menzies

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