Traffic Guesstimates v. Lively Cityscapes: Toronto’s Choice

Does this sound familiar?

This project would speed the trips of a few rush-hour drivers by a few minutes. On the other hand, the highway would run through a new waterfront park, scar a neighbourhood and eat up valuable land…

Aside from the words “highway” and “new,” these sentences could describe the Wellington Street Extension, but I’ve taken them from Alex Bozikovic’s article about the Gardiner Expressway in this weekend’s Globe and Mail (May 16 2015). Toronto, having worked hard to imagine how to take down this infamous waterfront highway — best known as an eyesore and rush-hour parking lot — now seems poised to rebuild it instead.

Toronto’s size and exceptional traffic congestion issues mean we can’t compare the Gardiner’s history and future too closely to the proposed extension of Wellington Street here in Kingston. There are parallels, though. For example, attitudes that privilege the car in urban planning irritate the article’s author as much as they frustrate opponents of the WSE.

So far the Gardiner East debate has been almost entirely about congestion. Yet how many people drive it? Just 5,200 cars per hour during morning rush hour, according to city figures. It’s a vanishingly small number, just 3 per cent of rush-hour commuters into downtown Toronto.

Tellingly, when (Toronto mayor) Mr. Tory spoke out for the so-called “hybrid” option – which involves essentially rebuilding the Gardiner East – he didn’t mention those piddling figures. He cited the economic cost of congestion in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area as “billions each year,” perhaps alluding to a study of the entire region of six million people in 2006. “No matter how much transit we get built … we are still going to have people driving around in cars and trucks,” he said recently.

That is true. But nobody can say for sure what traffic in 20 years will look like, and whatever happens here – for 3 per cent of downtown commuters – will not meaningfully reduce congestion. Only new transit will. But the mayor wasn’t really making an argument; he was making a gesture of solidarity to drivers who feel besieged in a city where the roads keep filling up, to their frustration, with more and more people.

Here are some more excerpts from the article that apply to our own situation here in Kingston (I’ve added the emphasis).

The world cities that Toronto most wants to emulate are making it harder, not easier, to drive into downtown: London with congestion pricing; New York with pedestrianized streets and bike infrastructure. Why? Because the more roads you build, the more traffic you get, and the alternative, a more walkable, safer and more beautiful streetscape, pays financial and social dividends for everyone. Think of the best and most prosperous cities you have seen. Are they built around expressways? As the Danish planner Jan Gehl puts it, cities are for people, not cars.

On the central waterfront, the public agency Waterfront Toronto is successfully building a lively, pedestrian-friendly cityscape… That is creating value, not the productivity guesstimates of traffic studies but real money. Major employers know that their workforce increasingly cares about urban amenities, not parking and car access.

“People are focused on all the assumptions about cars and travel time,” says (planner and urban designer Ken) Greenberg. But traffic is a small consideration here. This is about what kind of city were building.

Just because Kingston is a smaller city doesn’t mean it has to have smaller ideas. Let’s not let cars drive our plans.

— Anne Lougheed

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