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Toronto Reconsidered: Planning for the next century

Gridlock: If you think it’s bad now…

What big travel plans are in the works for a region with a soaring population and a bad case of urban sprawl?

None, actually.

by John Barber and James Rusk

Stan Rigler has made the same trip between his home in Richmond Hill and his job in Scarborough every workday since 1986. Not much has changed since then, except for one thing: The daily commute now takes him twice as long as it did 13 years ago.

“The traffic’s been getting gradually worse over the years,” he said. “Now, we’re at the point where it’s pretty ugly. Both ways, there are pockets where you’re at a dead stop.”

The drive that used to last 20 minutes in one direction now takes 40 minutes, Mr. Rigler said. And if he weren’t able to make part of the trip along the new Highway 407 toll road, it would probably take him longer still.

“It’s worth me paying that money to save the time,” he said. Without the 407, he estimated, the former 20-minute trip would consume most of an hour in each direction.

With no new investment planned for either roads or public transit in the Toronto region, transportation experts expect commuting times to grow even more quickly in coming decades.

“It’s a very negative picture,” said Rick Ducharme, GO Transit’s general manager. Although GO expects to almost double its capacity over the next 20 years, that will increase its share of total rush-hour trips in the fast-growing region infinitesimally — to 3 from 2 per cent. Over the same time, municipal transit authorities are expected to lose market share.

The numbers boil down to one simple fact: gridlock.

“If you take all the current plans and levels of funding for highways and transit, you will see gridlock spreading further and further across the GTA,” said David Gunn, chief general manager of the Toronto Transit Commission. “Doing what we’re doing now is going to produce an unacceptable result, and whatever else we do is going to cost money.”

With spending at historically low levels and population growing faster than ever, the transportation crisis threatens the prosperity of the entire region at a fundamental level, said Alan Tonks, chairman of the Greater Toronto Services Board.

“If you talk to the transport haulers, they’ll say that … the price of doing business in Greater Toronto makes it virtually a no-go zone for our buses, for our truckers and for those who are delivering the life support for the city,” he said.

With its current population of 4.8 million expected to grow to 6.4 million by 2021, according to Oakville demographer Thomas McCormack, Toronto is one of the fastest-growing urban regions in North America.

But large-scale transportation planning is non-existent. And whatever vision is embodied in the new City of Toronto Official Plan will address only half the problem, which is regional in scale, leaving aside the more difficult task of increasing capacity in the booming suburbs in the 905 telephone area.

“The City of Toronto may be better off because it still — for the time being — has the TTC,” said Mr. Gunn, who is retiring at the end of the month. “But as you get away from the core, the ability to solve some of these problems is problematic.”

Explosive growth in the outer suburbs will almost certainly require more road construction, the experts say, although few expect roads alone to meet the need. Once the eastern and western extensions of Highway 407 are finished, no more rights-of-way are available for expressways in the built-up parts of the region.

“Quite frankly, roads are not the solution,” said Ray Simpson of Hemson Consulting Ltd., a Toronto planning firm. “It’s going to have to be transit, because we’ve boxed ourselves really into a situation where roads can’t do it.”

But municipal transit beyond city limits — where most of the major job growth and commuting pressure is concentrating — is “a lost cause,” said Richard Soberman, an engineering professor at the University of Toronto, veteran transportation planner, and consultant to GO Transit and the TTC.

“We’re tilting at windmills if we think we are going to get these guys on public transportation,” he said.

The only potential solution, experts agree, is to choke off the low-density sprawling development that currently characterizes urban growth in the Toronto suburbs and replace it with concentrated development at high-density nodes and along well-defined corridors.

That job “is essential,” said Neil Irwin, managing director of IBI Group, a Toronto planning firm, “because if you let the land use go on just being individual subdivisions of low density — and hang the hindmost as to who gets any place from them by car — then we’re heading for Los Angeles.”

Mr. Gunn added: “There’s enormous cost that comes with this dispersal of economic and social activity. You could get a lot more bang for your buck with more concentrated development.”

One of the key problems in establishing a more cost-efficient and transit-friendly city form is the fact that land-use planning is a local responsibility. Local municipalities give scant regard for the need for concentrated development, and there is no regional authority with the power to trump local land-use decisions.

“We are not going to keep the livability around here if we don’t find a way to do some big-P planning,” said Milt Farrell, an Oakville planning consultant who helped the Ontario government design the new Greater Toronto Services Board.

Although the agency, as configured, has ownership of GO Transit, it is a weak body with none of the planning authority Mr. Farrell originally recommended. Short of fundamental changes in land-use planning, experts recommend a variety of smaller-scale initiatives to improve the viability of public transit. The most popular suggestion is to create a new source of funding for transit out of fuel taxes or vehicle-registration fees.

“There’s no question in my mind that when someone uses an automobile, they are not paying the full costs they impose on society,” Prof. Soberman said.

The extent to which road use is underpriced is controversial, he added, with estimates ranging from 30 to 400 per cent. “But if you make people more aware in a direct way of the costs they impose on themselves and others, maybe they would change their behaviour.”

Both Quebec and British Columbia recently dedicated a variety of alternative funding sources to regional transit authorities in Montreal and Vancouver, including taxes on parking, fuel taxes and a surcharge on residential electricity bills.

A regional fuel tax of two cents a litre would wipe out GO Transit’s current annual deficit of more than $100-million, Prof. Soberman said.

But Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Al Leach said that, rather than find new tax revenue for municipalities to finance transit, the provincial government would prefer to take other responsibilities, such as some of the cost of social services, off the property tax.

And federal Transport Minister David Collennette recently said a dedicated tax is foreign to the Canadian parliamentary system. (So, it would appear, is transit funding: While the U.S. federal government supplies 18 per cent of the total cost of that country’s public transit, the Canadian government contributes nothing.)

Although fuel taxes and vehicle-registration fees are easily accessible, most experts consider such measures a less equitable means of funding transit than the creation of more toll roads such as Highway 407. “I think toll roads make a heck of a lot of environmental sense,” Mr. Gunn said.

The 407 is a powerful demonstration of the effectiveness of tolling technology, Prof. Soberman said.

He envisions a future in which 407-type electronic sensors levy charges on commuters for driving, parking and transit in one integrated system that produces a single bill at the end of each month.

In the immediate future, though, nobody imagines Toronto averting gridlock without the aid of increased government funding.

The most obvious candidate is GO Transit, which is ideally poised to serve the largest transportation growth market in the region — commuting from the outer suburbs into downtown Toronto.

Prof. Soberman noted that, while overall transit use in the Toronto region fell from 1986 to 1996, GO’s rail services increased their ridership by 55 per cent over the same decade. Provincial forecasts call for GO rail trips to double by 2021.

At current funding levels, however, the system will be unable to handle any new passengers, said Mr. Ducharme, GO’s general manager. He said GO needs capital improvements worth more than $1-billion by 2021, beginning with an immediate infusion of $100-million to upgrade Union Station.

Such investments are simply beyond the means of the municipalities that currently support GO Transit, Mr. Ducharme said, so senior-government support is essential.

That does not mean a return to large-scale investment of the sort planned in the 1980s, Mr. Gunn said. “Flights of fancy like the Sheppard subway don’t solve problems,” he said, “but they do consume enormous resources… .

“Your investment in transportation is going to have to be done in a very frugal fashion. You cannot afford to blow major money on these megaprojects to get three kilometres of new service.”

The effort to lure passengers out of their cars with deluxe transit has failed, Mr. Gunn added. The future belongs to the bus, perhaps with express buses on dedicated lanes or hydroelectric corridors. “If you can provide a competitive, hassle-free, cheap ride, people are moved by that,” he said.

But if the roads are full with single-occupancy cars, nothing will move at all.


As the Toronto region grows experts predict that roadways will become more congested while municipal transit use will decline. To ease the gridlock, some point to GO Transit, which is best suited to handle the greatest part of the increase — the traffic between the fast-growing suburbs and downtown.


Trips are increasing…
Daily number of passenger trips taken in Greater Toronto Area in
1986: 7.3 million
1996: 9 million (up 24%)
2021: 14 million (up 55%)

…but fewer will take transit…
Municipal transit share of trips:
1986: 24%
1996: 18%
2021: 15% (forecast)

…and more will take vehicles
Motor vehicle share of trips:
1986: 75%
1996: 80%
2021: 82% (forecast)


Total GO ridership: 35.9 million (1998).
GO Transit’s rush-hour traffic through Union Station:
30,000 passengers (To travel by car, they’d need three clones of the Don Valley Parkway plus three of the Queen Elizabeth Way.)

GO’s total downtown traffic:
1995: 23.7 million passengers
1998: 28.9 million passengers. (equal to all three terminals at Pearson Airport)
2021: GO load expected to double.
Needed: 30 new trains or 15 to 20 new highway lanes downtown.
Source: GO Transit