This Op-Ed was originally published in Ottawa's The Hill Times on April 10, 2019.
You drove to work swerving around potholes, taking a different exit because of construction, only to find yourself stuck in a traffic jam that didn’t get better because a train was crossing the street in slow motion, and you’ve ended up at a parkade with restricted access due to “improvements in customer service.” An infrastructure gap you say? Yes, we’re living it.
Canada has fallen behind in infrastructure spending. There are different estimates about the size of the gap, but let’s use the Federation of Canadian Municipalities figure of $123 billion since the 1950s to illustrate the point. The Conference Board of Canada has previously commented that this perennial shortfall and the investment required to address it, comes with considerable sticker shock. Billions of dollars is hard for most people to grasp.
Yet cities are big investment centres and they play a critical role in regional and Canadian economic development. How do we as a nation close a gap that is so tangibly wide, plagued by jurisdictional rivalries, funding wars, and partisan politics?
Part of the solution may require a different lens according to research from The Conference Board of Canada. For example, evaluation of infrastructure investment may shift from looking at it as fixed up front cost, to the provision of a service over its life span. These evaluations may also consider social factors, such as community wellbeing, which can increase the value of infrastructure investment. Ultimately, there is a need to think differently about infrastructure and the assumptions that underlie current estimates of the infrastructure gap.
A quick illustration: what urban infrastructure increases citizen health, matches workers with jobs, promotes employment density, creates equity of access for all citizens, and enhances productivity and prosperity?
Rather than a fixed view of the cost of concrete and asphalt, reimagining infrastructure as a service and focusing on the outcomes achieved may help determine where best to invest in transportation.
Our changing economy – the digital and green future nexus – necessarily means questioning our conventional wisdom about infrastructure. Canada was built using infrastructure investment to drive economic growth and employment. That remains key – especially the growing requirement for digital infrastructure in a knowledge-driven economy. But building roads, bridges, and other public buildings without foresight to their service outcomes and/or quality of life improvements to the population, may contribute to the long-term deficit we continue to face.
Our digital and green future will have significant impact on how people move – especially in Canada’s urban centres. Within a 30-40 year horizon, connected, autonomous, shared and electric vehicles will revolutionize urban transportation. As well, first and last kilometre connections to transit are expected to require considerable infrastructure investment. So, what shift in thinking and prioritizing is required now to view transportation infrastructure through a service and community wellbeing lens?
A new framework for thinking about infrastructure is a start, one that focuses on the flows of services and includes non-asset heavy and non-monetary responses to address demand for services. Infrastructure has social value and it can determine community wellbeing. Key items for consideration in this new approach include: consider the relationship between new and old infrastructure; re-examine the importance of municipal-driven investment support; recognize some infrastructure is obsolete and perpetual maintenance is not required; include a greater and more diverse range of stakeholders in planning, decision-making and action; adopt “complete streets” and off-road shared mobility infrastructure; and recognize the role of “soft”, green, ecosystem, digital, and smart infrastructure equally with physical infrastructure.
Should we mind the infrastructure gap in Canada? Absolutely, but the time is right for engaging in a broader discussion about defining infrastructure investment differently. Adapting and adopting the learnings from social return on investment and community wellbeing lenses can only improve our infrastructure investment decision-making.
 Markovich, Dr. Julia. Querying the Infrastructure Gap: towards a new framework for thinking about infrastructure. Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2019. Markovich, Julia, Monika Slovinec D’Angelo, and Thy Dinh. Community Wellbeing:
A Framework for the Design Professions. Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2018.