Future of Design January 15, 2024

The U.S. federal infrastructure bill presents a once-in-a-lifetime chance to transform national transit

The U.S. federal infrastructure bill presents a once-in-a-lifetime chance to transform national transit. The country might benefit by taking cues from Canada.

In 2021, the U.S. Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), allocating $550 billion to help improve and modernize the nation’s aged and crumbling infrastructure. That this measure moved forward at all in today’s polarized political climate is a triumph; it’s a sign that unity is still possible when the stakes are high enough. And the bill makes historic investments in public transit, rail, clean energy, and electric vehicle infrastructure—all elements that are vital to the future prosperity of the nation. Yet, the bill could go even further to incentivize mass transit, reduce the climate impacts of transportation, and rebuild transit-adjacent communities that have long been underfunded or ignored.

The question then becomes, what happens next? Given the pace of infrastructure rollout, it’s not too late for America to make the most of the IIJA. That will involve a shift in perspective—not just viewing infrastructure as a powerful tool in and of itself, but also as a key building block to create something both activists and developers agree they need: better communities.

Fortunately, America may not need to look too far for inspiration. In 2016, its northerly neighbor launched the Investing in Canada Plan (IICP), allocating more than $180 billion over 12 years for federal infrastructure. (This is a huge investment, considering Canada’s population is about one-ninth that of the U.S.) Despite similar hurdles within the Canadian government’s bureaucracy, the IICP—unlike the IIJA or the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—has made a concerted effort to grow the country in a sustainable and equitable way. Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes the most financial and practical sense, particularly in the context of building effective places.

“You don’t build transportation infrastructure for the sake of infrastructure; you build it because it leads to everything else that makes a community great: connectivity, social equity, sustainability, resilience.”
Matti Siemiatycki, Professor and Director of the Infrastructure Institute, University of Toronto

“There’s a growing awareness that you don’t build transportation infrastructure for the sake of infrastructure; you build it because it leads to everything else that makes a community great: connectivity, social equity, sustainability, resilience,” says Matti Siemiatycki, a professor and director of the Infrastructure Institute, a training, advisory, and multidisciplinary research hub at the University of Toronto. “You build it because it ensures a stronger future.”

Early successes in improving the public realm through transportation infrastructure have become case studies for best practices. In Toronto, provincial public agencies Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario are adding more than 40 miles of subway and more than $11 billion in heavy rail expansions and improvements, tripling rapid transit and quadrupling regional rail service. Much of the work, Siemiatycki points out, is not in the city’s already-developed center, but in transit-starved, and—not coincidentally—less prosperous urban edge neighborhoods. While the project has experienced delays due to commissioning issues—a common occurrence with large infrastructure projects—the city is working closely with local communities to devise ways to avoid the displacement of residents.

In Montreal, the Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM) provides 67 kilometers of light rail and 26 stations linking downtown, the airport, and the Greater Montréal area. Outside of its 100% electric network and focus on design excellence, perhaps the project’s biggest innovation is that it is being delivered by CDPQ Infra (Caisse de Dépôt et Placement du Québec), an institutional investor that is a subsidiary of Canada’s second-largest pension fund. CDPQ is responsible for overseeing the planning, financing, completion, and eventual operation of the network, a public-private partnership that could serve as a model for future transportation funding in the U.S.

And in Vancouver, Marine Gateway has set a precedent for transit-oriented development. Developed by PCI Development Group, the project is built around a new stop on the SkyTrain system’s Canada Line, combining the station with a mix of uses, a high-quality public realm, and links from the rail line to busses and walkable destinations. While privately funded, the project leveraged provincial and federal infrastructure investment to create a new heart for an existing community.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., funding and designing infrastructure to function as a healthy community generator is happening in fits and starts, mostly at the executive and local levels—but there is growing momentum. In 2020 and 2022, the Federal Transit Administration funded grants (albeit in the millions, not billions) for pilot projects connecting communities and improving access to transit and affordable housing. And the Department of Transportation has, for the first time, released an Equity Action Plan, which—among other things—sets out to prioritize infrastructure investments in underserved communities while also seeking community feedback in overseeing such investments.

Additionally, transit agencies around the U.S.—including those in L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago—are now implementing their own joint transit-oriented development programs, partnering with developers to lease property owned by the transit agency near or above a transit station. The projects help build community and add to the agencies’ often beleaguered bottom lines. Yet, even without a role in development, cities can incentivize transit-oriented development that better serves their communities. In Northern California, for instance, the Sacramento Valley Station Area Plan outlines high-intensity, mixed-use projects that will revitalize the popular station’s neighborhood—and enhance connections throughout the city—via additions like parks, urban agriculture, a bike share program, and an enhanced tree canopy.

As funding from the IIJA continues to roll out, remember that transportation infrastructure can do more than create jobs and move goods, services, and people around. It can act as a builder of community, equitably serving a wide range of beneficiaries while improving the environment and ensuring a brighter, more prosperous, and resilient future for us all. For now, Canada may be a few steps ahead of the U.S., but with America’s continued focus and investment—and, perhaps, with some inspiration from successful infrastructure models to its north—it won’t take long to bridge the gap.