Reflections on the Gardiner East

I really enjoy getting high up views of Toronto. A view of the city from 30-stories up reveals a very different Toronto than the one most people encounter every day. The bustling noisy street disappears, and you experience a wonderful calm. Open space exists in every direction and looking down you see… trees! Toronto is literally covered in trees – so much that it becomes difficult to pick out any building under three storeys.

View from 38th Floor of the TD Tower looking East
View from 38th Floor of the TD Tower looking East

The other day, however, I had a different realization from above. Standing on the 38th floor of the TD Tower looking east of downtown, my eyes stumbled upon the Gardiner Expressway, particularly the region that has been under so much debate lately. The decades-old engineering feat stands tall above the east waterfront, and has for years stymied development in the area. While every other region downtown has been exploding, the east waterfront has stood still.

So why hasn’t it been torn down? Cities all over the world are doing the same with their elevated expressways. The main reason is the expected increase in commute times associated with its removal. Estimates vary, but removing the expressway would cause commute times along that route to increase somewhere between 3-10 minutes by 2030.

Of course the people of Toronto are upset about this – every freeway in the region is already choking with no sign of that changing any time soon. But is it really fair to become so attached to this number? After all, it is merely the output of a model, filled with underlying assumptions that may or may not be valid. For example, some models forecast future automobile growth based on historical growth rates, however numerous studies in recent years have shown we have since passed “peak auto”, meaning people are no longer driving more than they used to – they are in fact driving less.

The reality is that every action causes a reaction, and that reaction causes another reaction, and so on, and so on. Predicting people’s future travel decisions is not as simple as extrapolating on past data, it is endlessly more complex. If, for example, the tear-down were accompanied by a new LRT and a well-designed bike path, perhaps enough people would pursue transit and cycling that there would be no impact on travel times at all. After all, only 3% of morning commuter trips to downtown are made by the Gardiner East – is this really such a large number to be worried about?

The focus needs to not be on what we are as a city, but what we are willing to become. A Gardiner-free waterfront promises new development opportunities and the creation of an entirely new community just a few kilometres from downtown. By removing this age-old highway, we can provide a “shot in the arm” to curbing our residents’ driving habits as so many other “world-class” cities have been doing for years.

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