In Torontoist vs. Torontoist, two Torontoist staffers face off to debate an issue important to our city. We invite our readers to join in the debate in the comments section after the post.
Photo by Marc Lostracco/Torontoist.
In its cover story this past Sunday, the Toronto Sun took a hammer to City Hall’s transportation plan, slamming it for waging a “war on cars” and for having an “anti-car strategy” that leaves the issue of traffic congestion by the wayside. Prioritizing public transit, cycling, and pedestrians ahead of autos, the Sun claimed, is leading to serious economic and social consequences for both drivers and Toronto as a whole. Has City Hall taken a wrong turn? Should the municipal government make the expansion of automobile infrastructure a priority?
Torontoist’s Jerad Gallinger and Christopher Bird each take a side, after the fold.
FOR JERAD GALLINGER
We need cars. That can be hard to admit sometimes, especially for the environmentalists, cycling advocates, and municipal politicians tirelessly campaigning to scale back the presence of automobiles in our city. Those who fight for a car-reduced society do so with good reason: inefficient gas-guzzlers are a blight on the environment, and careless drivers can be a danger to cyclists and pedestrians.
Idealistic sentiments aside, however, the truth remains that cars aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. And as long as they’re here, it’s in the city’s best interests to ensure that infrastructure is in place to allow autos to move quickly and easily, in order to avoid the economic and environmental damage caused by traffic congestion.
The typical response to this surprisingly controversial position is that there are enough ways to get around the city without driving—namely via public transit—giving car owners no excuse for keeping up their nature-harming ways. But that claim is based on a utopian TTC that has yet to, and may never, come to fruition.
While Toronto has lofty goals for improving access to public transportation, projects like Transit City and the subterranean Downtown Relief Line require huge sums of cash to get off the ground—money City Hall simply doesn’t have. And although local officials seem confident that the needed billions are forthcoming from the federal and provincial governments, the ailing economy and competing priorities outside of Toronto mean that such support is far from a done deal. In the meantime, residents have to get around somehow, and for most that means driving.
Even if Toronto were to become a public transit Shangri-La, it would still need transport trucks—and lots of them—to move goods across town (that is, unless TTC Chair Adam Giambrone has hatched a secret plan to attach freight trailers to the backs of buses and streetcars, which would be one hell of a cargo coup). A bike can’t move a twenty-tonne shipping container from a west-end factory to an east-end retailer; a tractor-trailer can. Even trains can’t do the job alone: while moving cargo from city to city by rail is easily accomplished, trucks are needed to get goods from the train station to their final destination elsewhere in the city. In other words, roads go where rails don’t.
So here’s the crux of the argument: while reducing Torontonians’ dependence on automobiles is a laudable goal, many residents’ transportation needs are simply not being met by the remaining options, namely cycling and the TTC. City Hall’s plan for reducing traffic congestion needs to be more than fervently hoping that public transit money will come down from on high. A concerted effort needs to be made to address issues relevant to drivers. Because while cars may not be in our distant future, they are critical to our here and now.
AGAINST CHRISTOPHER BIRD
The Sun’s article is singularly witless, and not just because it’s little more than an extended rant against everything that pisses drivers off (“cyclists don’t get tickets like they should! I hate waiting at traffic lights! Transit boosters are Nazis who wanna take away my wheels! WAHHHHHHH”) or because when an environmental professor compares the love of driving to the love of smoking, they miss the point and start talking about emissions.
It’s witless because it’s written by people who complain that the city doesn’t spend enough money on making driving in the city better, but don’t have any idea how to make it better. The Sun and Denzil Minnan-Wong might complain that city policy is anti-car, but if you want less congestion—and presumably we all do—then you need less traffic. There are two basic ways to get less traffic: fewer cars and more roads.
The Minnan-Wongs of the world complain that we’ve abandoned “more roads,” but let’s be realistic for a second here: without major city reconstruction, we can’t fit any more roads into Toronto or even widen the major arteries we’ve already got. You simply can’t make the Allen or the Gardiner or the 401 any wider: there are buildings right up to the edges of those roads. Expanding them would either require massive property purchasing on the part of the government or some of the largest uses of eminent domain powers in Canadian history. Maybe you can potentially expand the DVP. Experts aren’t sure if that’s safe, though, and even if it is it would be immensely expensive.
If you can’t get more roads, then we need fewer cars. Here’s the thing: although the Sun might not be happy about the tactics City Hall is using to attempt to give drivers an alternative to driving, it’s worth noting that thus far the city has mostly used the carrot rather than the stick. It’s only tried to make transit more attractive rather than creating policies designed to be punitive towards driving, so as to discourage unnecessary motoring.
That’s a shame, because more punitive measures work. Congestion charges (as introduced in London, Singapore, and Stockholm) might be considered political suicide, but they invariably reduce traffic flow in downtown corridors and make the city less congested—which in turn means that those who still choose to drive gain a less stressful, higher-quality driving experience. They also raise funds for transit construction and operation, which is something else we need rather badly.
And that brings me to my final point: we need transit construction really, really badly. It’s become a cliche for transit boosters to say we don’t spend enough on improving our transit infrastructure, but that’s because we don’t. The successful cities of the twenty-first century will be those where people can get around once the price of gasoline skyrockets, and whether that point is five years from now or twenty-five, it’s coming. We can either spend transportation dollars on strategies to help us get past that, or we can spend them on more roads, which are a short-term solution at best.