How to Turn the Province's Rejection of Tolls on the DVP and Gardiner Into an Opportunity
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How to Turn the Province’s Rejection of Tolls on the DVP and Gardiner Into an Opportunity

The bar for good city-building ideas in Toronto is too low.

Some progressive city-building voices are upset with the province’s decision not to approve road tolls on two of Toronto’s inner-city highways. In the proposal to toll the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway (but not the Allen Road Expressway), some saw the possibility of shifting more financial responsibility for city-building onto the drivers of private automobiles.

It was hoped that drivers would “pay their share.” It was hoped that such a shift might mean a consequent reduction of financial pressure on those whose mobility has a gentler impact on the budget and on the environment: pedestrians, cyclists, and transit riders.

Thus, they are unhappy with the province for waking them from this nice dream, even if some of them knew, deep-down, that it was unlikely to be approved or even that this particular proposal was not a truly progressive idea. The bar is so low in this city for good ideas that we often celebrate anything green as a sign of spring.

Hard on the heels of sadness at the loss of potential toll revenue was an anger rooted in a broader issue: the alleged principle of local democracy and self-government. The mayor complained that he didn’t want to treated like a child by the Premier.

I don’t sympathize with the Mayor’s frustration that the Premier appears to have reversed her position. Not when Tory has so done little work to build relationships with other GTHA mayors, or to understand the bigger picture for Toronto within the region and the province’s perspective. And, especially, not when Tory himself has done a complete 180 on the Gardiner and, yes, road tolls.

I do sympathize with the frustration that Toronto’s municipal government does not have total authority over the City, but I’m not sure it’s worth anyone’s energy. Municipal government is a creature of the Province. It is intentionally limited in its powers.

Under the current structure, the province is well within its rights—indeed, its responsibilities—to manage how the city can raise revenue. Having said that, the Province regularly shirks its responsibility to ensure transportation infrastructure is adequate for the economic and other mobility needs of the region. The establishment of Metrolinx was a step in the right direction, but the province almost immediately allowed short-term electoral goals to get in the way of good planning.

I’m encouraged that the province is doubling the gas tax allocation to municipalities, but I find it shameful that it will not be implemented immediately. The provincial government should have long since restored its contribution to the TTC’s operating budget to cover the financial loss of service to the lower-density suburbs within the city.

The Premier is right to say, in her decision not to approve road tolls, that Toronto residents need better transit options. But under the Liberals’ watch, sound transit-planning practices have been more talk than walk. Every development decision is a transit decision. The recent siting of two new hospitals in St. Catharines and Windsor in suburban locations is straight out of 1950s planning around the automobile.

More importantly, Toronto’s own goals are still murky on the question of the future of the car in the city. Too frequently, we lack vision, and we lack political leadership. The Mayor’s random revenue-generating ideas encourage narrow, limited thinking. We are implicitly encouraged to think small, to accept compromises that are not real compromises. We should resist this.

I don’t include the mayor among progressive city-builders. The Tory road toll proposal was not a city-building idea, nor a good plan. Its only achievable goal was to raise money, most or all of which would have gone towards roads, not transit. As a revenue tool, it was unfair, and as a city-building plan, it was auto-centric. It was trying to make money off the status quo instead of building towards something better.

Road tolls on the DVP and Gardiner would not have improved mobility in the city, nor would they have brought about significant mode change—namely, getting people out of cars.

So let’s take the opportunity to shed ourselves of a weak plan and imagine what could be done with the Toronto-owned highways to build a better city, one that isn’t oriented around the automobile. We should talk about rethinking how they are used, or even getting rid of all of them.

Our three inner-city freeways were the brainchild of the Metro Toronto government in the 1950s. There were even more expressways planned that were never built. They are the epitome of auto-centric city-building that cuts the city in pieces and envisions it as a place to get through, rather than a place in which we live.

We should dare to envision the city without these freeways, or at least imagine them serving a multimodal purpose. The Gardiner East should return to its boulevard project, not just because it will save us billions of dollars, but because it will build a better city.

The rest of the elevated Gardiner West to Dufferin should also be torn down and all of it restored to a boulevard integrated with the Lake Shore, giving over some of the space needed for better local transit along the corridor. Just imagine how many more people could get to the waterfront on a regular basis, and how much more liveable the area would be for its residents.

The DVP could, at a minimum, end its access for cars coming south from the 401 at the Danforth (traffic volume is already significantly lower south of the Danforth). It could have at least one lane dedicated to express bus routes from (just brainstorming here) Thorncliffe Park, Kennedy station, and stops along the Crosstown.

Such ideas have been floated before. There was a plan for GO Transit to put bus lanes down the median as recently as 2007.

Another DVP lane could be a separated cycle track. Below the Danforth, the land could be given over entirely for dedicated bus lanes, cycle tracks, hiking trails, and recreational access.

The Allen could keep its loop to Yorkdale Mall, but go no farther south from the 401. Transit already runs along its corridor, and reducing lanes or even eliminating the road altogether would free up a lot of space for development. Once upon a time, Councillor Howard Moscoe had similar ideas about burying parts of the Allen to revitalize the area.

Our twin goals underlying transportation planning should be building a better, healthier city, as well as getting people out of their cars, which would reduce pollution and improve overall mobility. Research shows the most effective policies for getting drivers to switch to public transit are those that offer them a better alternative, not those that punish them for driving.

By 2015, Vancouver had managed to make 50 per cent of trips in the city car-free—without a congestion charge. They did it by investing in public transit, cycling, and pedestrian-friendly design, and making it easier to get out of the car. They did it by building an urban landscape people want to be part of, not just move through. They made a point of making it more beautiful. They even did it years ahead of schedule.

Moralizing, punitive policies that inflict financial cost on the driver have little effect. If it saves them time, those who can pay more will. Righteous arguments will sway very few. Success is not making people’s live more inefficient and complicated. We should dream of a city where the healthiest mode choice is also the best one for the traveler, not the one that takes twice as long.

Cities around the world have been taking down their inner-city freeways, and none have looked back with regret. Why can’t we imagine a more beautiful, accessible city? Why can’t we imagine a city where commutes get faster because we build better transit, instead of just more expensive because we keep the freeways?

With road tolls on the DVP and the Gardiner, we would never be able to do anything different with the highways. This decision not to go forward with the tolls opens all kinds of opportunities to build something better than what we have now.

We should dream big, Toronto, and not settle for shaking a bit more money out of drivers’ wallets. We need revenue, yes, and until we raise our property taxes in line with the region, our neighbours are not going to take us too seriously. So let’s not settle for piddly far-off fundraising plans that only serve to maintain these city highways. Let’s rethink those roads, and rethink the city as less dependent on the use of the private automobile altogether.