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Photo of gridlock on the highway
Photo by Chris Thomaidis
Culture & Society

Escaping Gridlock

What’s the solution to Toronto’s traffic problems?

For years, Jim Yates, a veteran Loblaws executive, had an almost effortless trip to work: just 20 minutes from his west-end home to the food giant’s midtown head office. He usually drove, but in good weather he often rode his bike. All that changed when his department moved into the company’s new corporate complex in Brampton. Now, says Yates, he leaves his home an hour earlier and has to drive at least an hour each way. Poor weather and dense afternoon traffic can draw out the return trip to well over 90 minutes. He tries to makes productive use of the time but acknowledges that the journeys take their toll: “It’s way more tiring,” he says.

Yates, of course, is not alone; just the opposite, in fact. Across the Greater Toronto Area, hundreds of thousands of commuters take to the region’s highways every day because they feel public transit is not an option for them. The situation inside the city proper isn’t much better. Encumbered by decades of under-investment, the Toronto Transit Commission’s subway network is woefully small and increasingly overcrowded.

Governments have begun to take heed, committing billions to extending the Spadina subway to Vaughan, expanding GO Transit service and building four new light-rapid transit (LRT) routes to connect Toronto’s inner suburbs. Those four lines, which will cost Queen’s Park $8.4 billion, were approved following a gut-wrenching fight at Toronto City Hall this spring. That showdown pitted Mayor Rob Ford, an ardent proponent of subways, against a broad coalition of city councillors who argued that the city’s inner suburbs didn’t have the population to justify the huge cost. Ford lost.

While these investments represent the largest expansion of rapid transit in Toronto in more than a generation, tough questions remain – especially for commuters who live and work in the outer suburbs. Gridlock costs the region an estimated $6 billion a year in lost productivity. Toronto’s air quality, though improved in recent years, continues to suffer because of excess smog. And with average commute times now in the 80-minute range, travelling across the GTA is a daunting task – one that will only become worse as three million people settle in the region over the next two decades. As a new Pembina Institute survey found, two-thirds of drivers experience stress on their daily odyssey. “Until transit becomes a convenient solution in the entire region,” says U of T geographer André Sorensen, who studies land use in the GTA, “we’re not going to solve our congestion problems. That’s the dilemma.”

To correct that deficit, Metrolinx, the regional transportation agency established in 2006, has developed a $50-billion, 25-year strategy known as “The Big Move” to build a network of high-occupancy vehicle lanes, LRT lines, bus rapid transit corridors, and subways in the GTA and Hamilton. It also wants to transform GO rail from a rush-hour service focused on getting commuters to Union Station in the morning and back home to the suburbs after work into a system that can be used all day, in any direction. But the agency and its Liberal masters have yet to reveal to voters how they plan to pay for all these transit projects. What’s more, some critics wonder whether Metrolinx’s plan will deliver the goods or merely dent the GTA’s grinding commute times. This much is clear: the region is now in the thick of an historic debate about its own future. The LRT train, it would seem, has left the station.


Rob Prichard, by his own account, has had the good fortune to spend much of his career perched atop three institutions with uniquely expansive perspectives on the city: U of T (as president), the Toronto Star (he ran Torstar), and now Metrolinx. Three years ago, when Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty tapped him to serve as chair of the new regional transportation agency, the 63-year-old former law school dean agreed because McGuinty assured him that the GTA’s gridlock problem was high on his to-do list.

The urban file was hardly new to Prichard: in 1995, he sat on Anne Golden’s Greater Toronto Taskforce, which anticipated the region’s hyper-growth and recommended a regional council to help manage, among other things, mounting transportation-related problems. Seventeen years later, the heightened public interest in transit is great news, says Prichard. “We have to seize that moment.”

As Prichard well knows, Metrolinx’s most formidable challenge is figuring out how to deliver transit in the City of Toronto’s rapidly growing suburbs where sprawling development has militated against efficient and convenient transit service. Indeed, the Canadian Urban Institute recently reported that the GTA now contains more than 200 million square feet of office space, making it one of just four such regions in North America. Thirty years ago, almost two-thirds of the GTA’s offices were on subway lines. By 2010, however, less than half of region’s office space was anywhere near a rapid transit stop.

GO Transit has certainly ameliorated the tidal wave of traffic. The system of buses and trains serving communities outside of Toronto now carries 57 million passengers annually. But transit trips in the outer suburbs, Sorensen says, still pale in comparison to the TTC’s yearly ridership of about 500 million. Consequently, Toronto-area highways experience high volumes most of the day, and tough “reverse commutes,” as people drive out from the city to office parks in Markham and Mississauga. Indeed, it’s no surprise, then, that a U.S. Department of Transportation study concluded that Highway 401 through Toronto is officially the busiest stretch of freeway anywhere in North America.

In recent years, Queen’s Park and Metrolinx have begun work on several major projects meant to ease congestion. The province has carved out high-occupancy vehicle lanes on some of the GTA’s highways and is promoting carpooling. An 18-kilometre dedicated “busway” is under construction along Highway 403. But Toronto City Council’s dramatic fight this spring – over whether to build subways or LRT lines with $8.4 billion from the province – did more to shine a spotlight on the agency’s long-term strategy than anything else it has undertaken.

As he followed the overheated debate, Amer Shalaby, a professor of civil engineering and the chair of U of T’s Urban Transportation Research and Advancement Centre, was struck by the glaring absence of a key piece of the puzzle: how the proposed LRT lines would fit into the big picture. “We need to look at the network perspective,” he says. In an emotionally charged fight rife with misinformation, there was scant analysis of how or if these new transit routes would ease the GTA’s congestion woes or mesh with Metrolinx’s other long-term plans. City-regions with more integrated transit systems, Shalaby points out, tend to use a combination of commuter rail, subway, light-rail or bus rapid transit, and surface transit operating in mixed traffic. Toronto’s transit grid, for historic reasons, is built around a small subway system and extensive bus and streetcar routes tied closely to subway stops. The city needs to have intermediate level service (LRT or bus rapid transit routes) for corridors with medium demand, says Shalaby. “In the GTA, we don’t really have this hierarchy.”

Nor, he adds, has Metrolinx subjected its Big Move plan to the sort of detailed computer modelling that would have tested the viability of its transit network against other alternatives using current and projected population and economic and other data. The agency, he says, “didn’t come to us. When you look at the final product, the scenarios they came up with were . . . not very thorough.” (Metrolinx is currently refining the Big Move strategy, and will release version 2.0 at some point in the next year.)

This kind of due diligence seems relevant, given that employment projections, prepared by Metro Toronto planners in the 1980s to justify the construction of subways on Eglinton West and Sheppard East, proved to be wildly off the mark. Why? Sorensen cites three reasons: the exodus of manufacturing jobs in the wake of the 1989 free trade agreement; changes to the planning process that permitted more companies to set up shop in the outer suburbs; and the fact that gas was so cheap employers didn’t think twice about locating further afield. He also points to research by Danish economist Bent Flyvbjerg, who has documented how government agencies promoting large infrastructure projects routinely overestimate revenues and lowball costs.

Metro’s flawed 1980s projections figured largely in the 2012 subway-versus-LRT debate, as critics of the mayor pointed out that even with significant intensification along Sheppard, the line won’t attract enough riders to justify the cost. “What’s the point of putting in a subway and exhausting all our resources on a single line,” Shalaby says. “Put in the subway where it’s warranted.”

Indeed, in the run-up to the final decision, council asked an expert panel – involving Eric Miller, a professor of civil engineering and director of U of T’s Cities Centre – to look at the relative merits of an LRT line and a subway for Sheppard. An expert in transit demand and transportation modelling, Miller, along with the panel, devised a scoring system to objectively evaluate three possible options for Sheppard: an LRT line, a subway, or a combination of the two. The panel recommended the LRT, which garnered significantly higher ratings than the other two, and after two days of intense debate, council voted 24 to 19 for the LRT option. Ford, for his part, flatly rejected the panel’s findings, insisting that Torontonians want subways, not LRT.

Photo by Chris Thomaidis

Dressed in a crisp navy suit with an Ontario legislature lapel pin, John Tory strides into O&B Canteen, the stylish eatery in the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and bangs out a quick text on his smartphone before settling in to discuss transit politics. Despite a bit more grey hair and a postpolitics gig on talk radio, Tory (BA Trinity 1975) is every bit as engaged in public life as he was when he ran for mayor, in 2003, and then led the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, from 2004 to 2009. These days, he’s using his platform as chair of CivicAction, a Toronto lobby group, to convince the McGuinty government to establish a long-term revenue source to finance The Big Move.

The strategy involves assembling a GTA-wide coalition of labour, business, not-for-profit and institutional leaders who are willing to back policies that will likely involve asking the region’s residents to pay more to alleviate traffic snarls. The PR campaign, expected to be in full swing by the fall, won’t include new transportation studies; nor does Tory intend to get into the policy weeds. “The people of the region are desperate to see actions taken to create a viable transit system,” he says. They know there’s been little progress “whether they’re driving their car or waiting for four trains to go by to get on the Yonge subway.” But to solve the worsening gridlock issues, he adds, “they’re going to have to pick their poison.”

Metrolinx is working on a plan to underwrite the Big Move, which means finding ways to raise about $2 billion a year. Lessons from other cities have helped advance the debate. In recent months, U of T’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance invited key figures from other cities that have cracked the funding problem. Among the speakers was Richard Katz, a former California assemblyman who helped Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sell voters on a plan to raise $40 billion over 30 years by adding half a per cent to the L.A. County sales tax.

The tax, approved by plebiscite in 2008, is earmarked for more than a dozen major transit and transportation projects, as well as smaller improvements. “People have a sense that their tax dollars are getting into the local community for something they can see,” says Enid Slack, director of the municipal finance institute. “The ‘aha moment’ is that even in a time of fiscal restraint and a time of people wanting lower taxes, [L.A. residents] could agree to be taxed for things they can see and benefit from.”

Yet an L.A.-style retail sales tax – seen as acceptable by between half and three-quarters of the GTA’s population, according to various polls – isn’t a complete solution because it doesn’t encourage drivers to use transit. One approach used in other cities is a regional parking levy. Studies have shown that higher parking fees and fewer spaces downtown encourage people to use transit. But in suburban areas, where drivers have long been accustomed to free parking in malls and office complexes, the impact is more difficult to predict because transit isn’t yet a viable alternative for most people.

Such chicken-and-egg dilemmas bedevil the debate about transit expansion. People need travel options besides cars, says Miller, who suggests “demand management” tools such as gas taxes, road tolls on the 400-series highways or congestion charges, like those used in downtown London to dissuade people from driving into the city core at certain times of the day. “Managing the use of the roads is important,” he says (though he adds he doesn’t think London’s congestion charge would translate well to Toronto).

While he acknowledges that road pricing is often seen as the third rail of local politics, Miller feels the issue is often framed incorrectly: “We typically ask the wrong question. It’s always viewed as a tax for which there is no benefit.” In fact, experience elsewhere shows some drivers are willing to pay more to reach their destination more quickly because the benefit they receive is immediate.

The riddle is that there is no GTA-wide political body, like L.A. County, that can formally levy these taxes and then be held accountable for their use. Nor is it clear how the region’s residents would express their views on such proposals. “We don’t do referenda here in Ontario, but there’s still a question of how do you get public support,” Slack observes, adding that she’s not opposed to the province giving local municipalities the right to use a range of levies but then letting each council decide if they wish to impose one.

Tory, for his part, believes that it would be possible to hold and win a referendum, but he feels that the decision should be made at Queen’s Park. On the latter point, Prichard agrees: “The ultimate decider is the legislature of Ontario.” He doesn’t think that it’s possible to achieve consensus by putting these questions to each of the GTA and Hamilton’s 31 municipalities. “It seems to me it has to be a region-wide initiative.”

Even if the provincial Liberals take Metrolinx’s forthcoming advice and impose various taxes, levies and fees on GTA residents to pay for the Big Move, the issue of how and when to spend those dollars remains something of an open question.

Transit watchers are eagerly awaiting next year’s release of a refined version of the Big Move. But experts remain divided about how the agency should target its investments. U of T economist Gilles Duranton argues that new revenues should be invested in high-speed bus service, using comfortable, state-of-the-art vehicles, because subways and LRT lines only make sense in areas with high population densities. “The idea that you build subways and then buildings will go up is just so fanciful.”

André Sorensen, however, argues that Metrolinx remains overly focused on expanding GO bus service, particularly to Union Station. “It doesn’t really create a regional transit system,” he says. “It just puts [more] people on the 400-series highways.”

Both Sorensen and Miller feel the real opportunity is to transform the GO rail network into an all-day service in all directions. Prichard says the McGuinty Liberals made just such a promise in the 2010 provincial election. “That’s the future of GO,” he states. “The whole issue is, ‘how fast can we do it?’ That’s both a financial question and a physical question.”

Sorensen argues that the way to get there is by converting the GO system from diesel trains to electric vehicles that can start and stop quickly, thus allowing Metrolinx to put both local and commuter service on the GO rail tracks. The agency has conducted an electrification study for its planned Union Station-Pearson shuttle service and has pledged to make the transition incrementally, but the major shifts won’t happen until after 2020.

By moving to a combination of commuter and local service on the GO rail corridors, Metrolinx could bring relatively inexpensive rapid transit to suburban areas. Such a solution could also solve a major problem on the TTC’s increasingly overtaxed subway network, especially the Yonge line. Transit experts have long advocated for a “downtown relief line” that would create another U-shaped route between the Bloor- Danforth subway and downtown, possibly from Pape Station in the east, through Union, to Dundas West, as a means of diverting riders from the Yonge-University line. The project, estimated in 2009 to cost $3 billion, is part of Metrolinx’s long-term plan, and has been endorsed by Toronto city council. But it will take over a decade to complete and the funding remains a question mark.


From his perch at Torys LLP, in the southernmost TD Bank tower, Prichard has an unbeatable ringside view of the waterfront and, in particular, Union Station, which remains the focus of much of the region’s transit planning. These days, the construction on the GO platforms is clearly visible, and the stylish glass-and-steel roof that will cover the tracks is taking shape.

The station’s revitalization, years in the making, will go down in history as one of Toronto’s most formidably complicated infrastructure projects, with myriad moving parts, technical challenges and competing interests. It’s a microcosm of Metrolinx’s own mandate in the GTA. With the agency poised to ignite a historic debate about how to finance billions in transit improvements, Prichard realizes Metrolinx may find itself arrayed against a tax-averse mayor and skeptical voters. Nonetheless, he revels in the challenge, and feels optimistic that a consensus will emerge. “Do I think the GTA and Hamilton, with its complexity, can get this issue right?” Prichard says, his voice rising. “Absolutely.”

Journalist and author John Lorinc (BSc 1987) writes about urban affairs for the Globe and Mail and Spacing Magazine

Illustration by Office of Gilbert Li

Metrolinx officials expect GO Transit’s ridership to reach 75… million by 2016, almost a third higher than today. Other agencies, including the TTC, Mississauga Transit and York Region Transit, are also seeing big increases in customers. The growing demand has prompted significant investment in major transit projects besides the four new LRT routes planned for Toronto:

1. Spadina subway expansion to Vaughan Metro Centre
Cost: $2.6 billion Completion date: 2015
2. York Region Viva bus rapid transit (five corridors)
Cost: $1.4 billion Completion date: 2014-20
3. Georgetown South (additional GO tracks)
Cost: $1.2 billion Completion date: 2015
4. Union Station Go Transit revitalization
Cost: $1.1 billion Completion date: 2015-16
5. Air Rail Link (Union Station to Pearson International)
Cost: $129 million Completion date: 2015
6. Mississauga bus rapid transit corridor
Cost: $249 million Completion date: 2013
7. Union Station subway station revitalization
Cost: $90 million Completion date: 2012

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