Making Way For Anything But The Car

The city of Seattle is going to have to wait at least nine months before they can get back to replacing the Alaskan Way viaduct, because somebody forgot about a steel pipe. A tunnel boring machine working its way underneath Seattle as part of the plan to replace an expiring elevated expressway hit a steel pipe in December and stopped moving. Efforts to dislodge the TBM seem to have made things worse, and now the machine won’t move again until September.

It’s been a long series of setbacks for the more than $4 billion (so far) project, and even if they didn’t serve as a cautionary tale for other cities looking to replace ageing infrastructure, the price tag certainly should. But they almost certainly won’t. Seattle had a number of cheaper options in front of it, and—facing intense pressure from the state government and counties around Seattle, as well as the business lobby—the tunnel project was chosen instead of options that would have arguably been better for the city.

If this is starting to sound familiar to people of Toronto, it’s because I’m not being terribly subtle about it.

The debate over what to do with the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto is likely to follow the same course as Seattle’s, for much of the same reason: Even if we had political leaders willing to entertain the idea of removing the Gardiner and replacing it with something less awful, the forces aligned in favour of spending hundreds of millions of unnecessary dollars for something more expensive than simply tearing it down are too great.

Indeed, the Gardiner debate is already basically over, without Toronto’s council having ever seriously considered wholesale removal of the expressway and instead left to debate whether the city is even allowed to talk about tearing down the easternmost, least important, least-travelled section of the Gardiner. And even that debate is being punted until after this year’s Mayoral election, because apparently elections are no time to talk about serious city-wide issues.

It’s a mark of how pinched our urban imagination is that we basically have to apologize for even thinking about taking space away from the car’s exclusive use, even in places where the infrastructure is actively harming other city interests, like opening up the blighted Port Lands along the waterfront. Never mind that we’ve found a wild specimen of that most elusive species—a private developer who’s begging to spend their own money on public infrastructure, if only we’ll do what city staff say is the best option anyway.

This is just one battle in a war that’s going to be fought across the world in cities that grew up in the post-World War II, car-oriented boom years. It’s natural for transit modes in cities to change, and it’s natural for cities to rejig their transportation infrastucture as modes shift as well. (New York didn’t spring fully-formed from the soil complete with subways.) With a few notable exceptions, policy-makers across North America live in terror of doing anything that will make it less attractive to drive a car to work everyday.

This is a problem because, in Toronto and elsewhere, it’s simply not going to be possible for car-exclusive infrastructure to keep up with the growth in demand. The existing road infrastructure, if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, is inevitably going to get worse from the motorist’s perspective: More and wealthier people are going to mean more cars on the road. (We are not planning on widespread grinding poverty and exodus from major cities, right?) We can tinker at the margins, by making more dense, mixed-use communities but the net effect of density—unless it’s used to support transit spending—is to make car traffic worse, not better.

Toronto already has transit projects that could alleviate some of the demand for a rebuilt Gardiner, including an LRT line for the eastern waterfront and the Downtown Relief Line subway that should have been built 30 years ago. The DRL is, nominally, supported by most of the mayoral candidates in this year’s election but it’s been nominally supported for decades without anyone actually raising taxes to build it. We’ve built two suburban subway extensions instead, with a third approved last year, each of which is likely to be a money-losing white elephant in perpetuity. The same political forces that distort our road planning are at work in transit.

The reasonable thing to do would be to start talking now about how we reconfigure our cities to more efficiently move people around—and that means making room for anything but the single-occupant car. But we won’t do that, because the forces aligned in favour of the status quo are too strong, and because of something even more basic: This is about tribal identities at least as much as it is about policy choices.

Until we can figure out a way to sell anti-car policies as anything other than anti-driver, motorists are going to naturally enough perceive basic urban policy questions as an attack on their choices. I’m not sure it’s possible to make that sale consistently enough to make serious infrastructure changes. But hey, at least we’ll have the Gardiner to look at for another two generations.

Image via Torontoist / Quadrangle Architects Limited