Walk with Joy
In the wake of this spring’s bruising civic debate over the future of the crumbling eastern section of Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway, I decided to take a contemplative walk under this famous stretch of elevated highway connecting to the Don Valley Expressway. Almost two decades since its amalgamation, how was it that the city is once again polarized by such irreconcilable differences between urban and suburban values? Then it struck met — the Gardiner East debate is really a symptom of a much greater challenge facing the city.
Carefully picking my way through the civic no-man’s land of debris-strewn muddy pathways and the narrow paved edge of the Lakeshore Boulevard under the towering highway above, I wondered how many key advocates of the Gardiner’s reconstruction have taken such a walk. What other global city would steal its most prime central waterfront real estate development opportunity to simply rebuild and re-skin its most ugly urban underbelly?
But this is Toronto, the most gridlocked city in North America. After decades of underinvestment into our transportation infrastructure, is it reasonable to take away from what little we have? Sure other global cities have removed similarly sensitive elevated highways, but those cities could absorb the displacement of traffic — especially by way of mass transit. Toronto simply cannot.
This is why the Gardiner East debate was symbolic of a greater urban malaise. Neither option was acceptable. But we needed to choose because of the broader neglect of our regional mobility crisis that threatens to loom well into our future. The obvious question: is there another option?
The most obvious and well-discussed option is for the Toronto Region to invest heavily in transit infrastructure. And while there has been some movement in this direction over the past decade, the scale of investment required far exceeds the funding plans to deliver. Most relevant of them all is Mayor John Tory’s parallel transportation alternative proposal, SmartTrack, which still has no municipal funding source. Ironically, a key idea to generating new city funds is to cash in on the incremental increase in land value that SmartTrack could create. But the approved rebuild of the Gardiner would wipe out some key opportunities for this.
Another critical area for the city to tackle is the lack of residential and commercial intensification around existing (and proposed) transit infrastructure. Curbing sprawl has proven to be only half the battle to achieving responsible utilization of urban land in the Toronto Region. Most of our population increase over the past decade has not been located within close walking distance to high order transit, thus perpetuating the pressure on our roadways.
Finally, an idea we need to embrace is how we can better utilize the road infrastructure we have, especially our urban expressway. The Pan Am Games experiment of expanding high occupancy lanes this summer is just a start. To really tackle peak gridlock, Toronto needs to look at what other major global cities have accomplished with road pricing. It’s a discussion that the Toronto Region Board of Trade (supporters of the Gardiner East rebuild) has advanced, noting that the region can expect to lose upwards of $14 billion in lost productivity simply due to gridlock. We are the only major city in North America to see its economic productivity decline and can ill afford to exacerbate this by sitting in unnecessary traffic.
The Gardiner debate is not over. There is time yet to engineer another option that will open up Toronto’s eastern waterfront to connect it to the Portlands and beyond, while ensuring adequate traffic capacity to Canada’s most important economic hub. But the Gardiner debate, and others like it, will never be fully resolved until we finally take charge of the broader mobility crisis facing our region. As other cities have proven, increased urban mobility is a value that brings cities, its people and its politicians together. It shouldn’t tear them apart.
Richard Joy is Executive Director of ULI Toronto. Previously, he served as Vice President, Policy and Government Relations at the Toronto Board of Trade, and was the Director of Municipal Affairs and Ontario (Provincial Affairs) at Global Public Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RichardJoyTO or email at [email protected]