Are Ontario's transportation plans the rotary phone of infrastructure?

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The future of transportation is coming more quickly than we think.

Hyperloop One, a company developing technology to move people and cargo at tremendous speeds through low-pressure tubes, expects to build a commercial track and have paying passengers somewhere in the world by 2021.

A trip between Toronto and Montreal in a pneumatic tube transportation system would take just 32 minutes, Rob Lloyd, chief executive officer of Hyperloop One, told the International Economic Forum of the Americas conference in Toronto last week.

But it doesn’t appear the technology will be coming to Ontario, or even Canada, quite yet. Lloyd says his company has had a few exploratory discussions about bringing his technology to Ontario, but he wants the regulatory process to move faster.

Ontario is in the midst of what the government calls a bold plan to modernize the province’s transportation network, with $31.5 billion going to transit and transportation infrastructure from the 2014-15 fiscal year to 2024-25. But some entrepreneurs at the conference argue all the government is doing is showing a firm commitment to the way things have always been done, when new thinking is needed.

Innovators are planning beyond the current scenario, while governments don’t have that mindset, says Lloyd. “If we do ask well-meaning, intelligent people to build something for the future, they’re going to build what they know. That’s their frame of reference.”

Proponents of new transportation systems argue that technologies such as Hyperloop, airships, or even networks of driverless cars will lower commute times and greenhouse gas emissions, and increase passenger safety.

One of the other technologies discussed at the forum was Worldwide Aeros Corp.’s airship. Much larger than blimps of ages past, the Aeroscraft currently in production will be almost 170 metres long, able to carry 60 metric tonnes of cargo and travel at over 200 kilometres per hour. It is intended to be in service in five years, with larger and faster models in the works.

Relying on publicly developed infrastructure has become a limiting factor for transportation companies, says Igor Pasternak, Worldwide’s CEO and chief engineer. “Perhaps for the first time in human history we’ve got a cargo delivery system that is independent from infrastructure.”

In contrast, Ontario is investing in a number of more conventional infrastructure projects. Some of the money will go to building or repaving 5,000 kilometres of highways, and constructing and maintaining more than 750 bridges over the next five years. Funding is also in place to build more than 350 kilometres of new rapid transit in the next 10 years and light rapid transit (LRT) systems in Waterloo, Hamilton, Mississauga, Ottawa and Toronto.  

Much of the new transportation infrastructure money that has been put aside in Ontario will be dedicated to maintenance and repair, and that’s a good thing, says Martin Collier, founder of Transport Futures.

But allocating more funds to build more of the same infrastructure encourages more travel by car, he says. Last week the Ontario government announced new high-occupancy toll lanes on the Queen Elizabeth Way, using what Collier calls “25-year-old technology.”

“It’s like installing a landline today. No, a rotary phone,” he says. “It’s really unfortunate. They make a decision but it’s just not done right.

“They don’t have the right framework in terms of how to allocate the money,” Collier says. “Ontario is a conservative place,” he says. “They’re not doing too many cutting-edge things.”

The government is giving some attention to more advanced technologies. It intends to put high-speed rail in the Windsor-Toronto corridor, and has appointed former federal transport minister David Collenette as its special adviser on high-speed rail. His report is expected sometime this fall. It also announced a $10 million investment over four years in the Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium, for the development of “next-generation transportation technologies to reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.”

But in other areas the province is moving more slowly. For example, while the government has authorized a driverless car pilot program strictly for testing purposes, Pittsburgh has gone ahead to become the first city allowing driverless Uber vehicles on the road.

Transportation Minister Stephen Del Duca says the province’s plans on transit and transportation need to strike a balance.

“The issue, for governments, is that we must invest taxpayers money carefully and wisely to ensure whatever system we chose will be built to last and will satisfy the needs of citizens – while also maintaining the flexibility to adapt to changing technology and changing demographics,” he said in a statement.

“We are in a time of disruptive technologies – the pace of change can be dizzying, and it can be difficult to balance the short-term potential with long-term viability, but that is a balance we are committed to finding every day.”

Promises of new technology need to be taken with a grain of salt, because with them much of the focus is on branding, and not on the “nitty-gritty realities” of cost, safety, environmental impact and regulation, cautionsMatti Siemiatycki, a University of Toronto professor who specializes in urban planning and transportation. Companies developing entirely new transportation technologies are pitching an idea and a dream, he says. “They tend to talk a lot more about the technology than the cost.”

Ultimately, Siemiatycki says, “We shouldn’t get caught up in the hype … there are always new ideas for transportation technologies, but it’s only the rare one that really hits and sticks.”