Mobility Lost

by Richard White

July 2014

Those of us who travel in and around Toronto by motor vehicle have faced an alarming reality this summer: we can barely get around. That longstanding bugbear “congestion”, steadily worsening as the city intensifies, has suddenly grown by a quantum leap with the closure of one lane on the Gardiner Expressway – the main route in and out of the central city from the west – for long-term reconstruction. One has the sense that the city is changing fundamentally, but also that something is being lost in that change.

That is not to say we in the midst of a “war on the car”, as our bobble-headed Mayor often insists we are – this current construction is rehabilitating an existing road, after all – but it is true that for years accommodating motor vehicles, especially passenger cars, has not been a priority. Toronto has not seen a major road built or even significantly widened since the early 1970s despite significant increases in population. Planners now strive to reduce car dependence, promote public transit, and encourage street life, not make it easier to drive.

The fact is, though, Toronto has remained a remarkably auto-friendly city. Drivers found lesser-traveled roads and underused parking spots. Restaurants, shops, and offices still received their vital deliveries. We got around, essentially by making better use of existing roadway infrastructure. Traffic delays were common enough, but travel by car has almost always been faster than travel by public transit unless a trip starts and ends near a subway line. Even inner-city residents own and use cars for recreation and shopping, while those in ‘streetcar suburbs’ like the Beaches or High Park are far more car-dependent than that old label suggests. And for a family outing a fifteen or twenty dollar parking charge, while it may seem outlandish, is less than the price of multiple TTC fares to and from – to say nothing of the crowds, stairways, and bad weather that car travel allows one to avoid. Travel by private car may not be what planners want people to want, but it seems to be what people want for themselves since it makes city living more convenient and more interesting – a fundamental point that is often overlooked in discussions about the evil of car-dependence.

It is useful to be reminded that fifty years ago planners knew this, and that our ability to get around now is basically the result of actions those planners took. Toronto’s mid-century modernist planners believed that urban mobility of any sort, public or private, would bring social benefits – it would widen employment markets, expand available goods and services, encourage social mixing, and generally broaden metropolitan horizons and experiences. Public transit was essential to achieve this in the modern city, but private automobile travel was needed too since it would serve a different, less predictable and less work-oriented demand. Accordingly they prescribed, in addition to metropolitan-wide public transit, streetcar-free car routes into downtown, high-capacity arterial suburban roads, and expressways along several key corridors. The last of these was famously halted, but the other two went ahead largely as planned. Streetcar-free routes are often overlooked as part of this system but drivers who use Mount Pleasant Road, Dundas Street East, and the Adelaide/Richmond one-way pair through downtown well know that several did get built.

It seems to me that we have benefited from this mobility, just as the modernists thought we would. For years I, for one, have taught once a week in Mississauga, regularly driven downtown (in all weather) to evening music performances or film screenings, occasionally patronized specialty shops and services far from my neighbourhood, visited friends or family in distant parts of the city at odd times of day, and felt free on Sunday mornings to explore distant suburbs or countryside – all of which would have been much less convenient, nearly impossible, on public transit. I do not believe I am alone in experiencing such benefits.

But this summer’s congestion seems to have tipped the balance. I find myself re-thinking employment opportunities, seeing fewer late-night international films, and wondering if regional explorations are worth the time they will take. Surely others feel likewise constrained.

It is hard to argue against reduced motor vehicle use. Cars and trucks have such obvious deleterious impacts. But we should not be so naive as to think it will be free of losses. We should be aware that if we attempt to reduce car travel by imposing tolls and fees on it we will simply be making a desirable commodity – since mobility is desirable – harder for those less wealthy to procure. The modernist focus on improving mobility for all was not just a technocratic obsession. It was also imbued with egalitarianism. We have benefited from their ideas much more, I think, than we realize.

The uncongested Gardiner Expressway, c. 1960 (City of Toronto Archives)

The uncongested Gardiner Expressway, c. 1960 (City of Toronto Archives)



The key road plan for the inner city was done well before the war, but the Depression prohibited any action until after the war: Toronto, Advisory City Planning Committee on Street Extensions, Widenings and Improvements, “Report”, 12 May 1930; mobility is highly valued throughout the Transportation chapter of the 1959 “Official Plan of the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Area”, and the 1964 “Report on the Metropolitan Toronto Transportation Plan”, both by the Metropolitan Toronto Planning Board. Reliance on car travel in older neighbourhoods is mentioned, along with countless other details, in the Neptis Foundation publication “Shaping the Toronto Region, Past, Present, and Future” by Zack Taylor with John Van Nostrand (2008).