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Transit-oriented communities: The future of city life in Ontario?

Author(s): Iris Tam

Dec 1, 2020

A transit-oriented development (TOD) is a type of compact development that brings together and integrates residential, commercial and other uses in an urban setting, with seamless walking and cycling connection between them. In addition, it offers easy access to public transport which connects riders to the rest of the city and opportunities and resources beyond the local community. An important feature of a TOD is that it is intended and designed to be more walkable and cyclable. Therefore, investments in walking and cycling facilities and infrastructure are critical, in addition to significant transit infrastructure investment.

Such a development is typically characterized by a major transit node (for example, a subway or rail station). Amenities and services are close by to serve commuters and local residents. The highest density is found around the public transport hub within a radius of 800 metres (i.e., an approximately 15-minute walk), with a gradual reduction in the height and density of buildings the farther they are from the transit station. Because public transport is within walking distance, TOD is designed to encourage the use of public transit, and to reduce dependence on cars and its concomitant commuting distances and times, traffic congestion and air pollution. Increased transit ridership translates into long-term fare revenue for transit authorities, while more walkable and active lifestyles also mean increased foot traffic and customers for local businesses which promote residents’ sense of community and convenience. The result is sustainable urban development.

Many cities around the world – such as Tokyo and Stockholm – have successfully used the TOD approach to enhance their competitiveness, productivity and liveability. However, TOD cannot be applied in all areas in the vicinity of transit stations. The type of development, the level of density and other factors specific to particular transit stations will vary and must be carefully considered, with no two stations being identical. Put another way, it is not advisable to adopt the same TOD approach in different parts of a transportation network or in diverse neighbourhoods in a city.

Two Ontario statutes are of particular interest to developers of transit-oriented communities in the province:

Building Transit Faster Act, 2020 (the BTFA)

Introduced in February 2020, the focus of the BTFA is on facilitating and streamlining the construction, delivery and completion of the Ontario Line, the Scarborough Subway Extension, the Yonge North Subway Extension and the Eglinton Crosstown West Extension. These constitute the four priority transit projects in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). The BTFA, now in force, is evidence of the province’s substantial investment in and commitment to these transit infrastructure projects. Areas in close proximity or immediately adjacent to new stations along the routes of the four priority subway projects in the GTA are candidates well-suited for TOD investment and densification. 

Transit-Oriented Communities Act, 2020 (the TOCA)

Passed in July 2020 to support and further the province’s objectives, the TOCA provides a framework for implementation of its TOD vision. Pursuant to the TOCA, the Lieutenant Governor in Council has the ability to designate land (which, in the opinion of the Lieutenant Governor in Council, is or may be required to support a transit-oriented community project) as transit-oriented community land. A “transit-oriented community project” is defined as “a development project of any nature or kind and for any usage in connection with the construction or operation of a station that is part of a priority transit project, and includes a development project located on transit corridor land within the meaning of” the BTFA.

More specifically, the TOCA contemplates that an expropriation of land (at least some part of which is designated as transit-oriented community land) for a transit-oriented community project is exempt from a hearing (known as a hearing of necessity) process under the Expropriations Act. The hearing of necessity is replaced by a process which may be established by the Minister of Transportation for property owners to provide comments on the proposed expropriation. 

What’s next? Bill 222, Ontario Rebuilding and Recovery Act, 2020

Bill 222, Ontario Rebuilding and Recovery Act, 2020 (the ORRA) has now passed second reading. It is important to note that the ORRA, when it becomes law, will allow other provincial transit projects beyond the GTA (including GO Rail expansion and Light Rail Transit projects) to be designated as “priority transit projects” within the meaning of the BTFA. The ORRA further seeks to amend the TOCA to extend the TOCA’s exemption from the hearing of necessity provisions prescribed by the Expropriations Act to such other provincial transit initiatives.

Other amendments proposed to be made to the TOCA include allowing the Minister (with the approval of the Lieutenant Governor in Council) to “establish, acquire, manage, participate in or otherwise deal with corporations, partnerships, joint ventures or other entities for the purpose of investing assets in, supporting or developing transit-oriented community projects related to provincial transit projects” (which powers may be delegated in whole or in part); and allowing the Minister (with the approval of the Minister of Finance and coordination and arrangement by the Ontario Financing Authority) to borrow or manage financial risks. These changes will provide broad powers and greater flexibility to structure and implement investments in transit-oriented community projects. As a result, the province will be able to partner and collaborate with, and to leverage the experience of, the private sector to develop and build vibrant, higher density communities that are connected or close to transit stations.

In sum, when it comes into force, the ORRA will not only broaden the application of important provisions from the BTFA and TOCA to major provincial transit infrastructure projects and related developments outside of the GTA, but also introduce other significant changes, with the goal of accelerating the development of transit-oriented communities in the province.