Toronto is Still Not New York, and Probably Never Will Be

A chart attached to a Bloomberg News story this week seemed to suggest Toronto would be denser than New York by 2025. It won't be, of course, and thank goodness for that.

Did you know that by 2025, Toronto will be more densely populated than New York City? Did you know that it already is? Both are true, if you saw the Bloomberg News chart that made the urbanist rounds on the Internet earlier this week. Residents of the Greater Toronto Area (not to mention Montreal, also allegedly more dense than New York) may have wondered exactly how that happened; you'd think we would have noticed, given our permanent state of anxiety about how we measure up to what is apparently the only other city on the continent that matters. (New York might never have noticed, even if it were true.)

It is, alas, a statistical gimmick. Bloomberg (not at all unreasonably or dishonestly) uses the Office of Management and Budget’s definition of the New York Combined Statistical Area—the broadest possible measure for the New York metro region, which includes counties in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. (Fun fact: by these measures, New Jersey has no cities in it—all of its urban areas exist in the New York or Philadelphia CSAs.) There are many good analytical reasons to do this, but unless you read closely, you’re likely to miss it.

Really, everybody should have taken a second look at a chart that declared Phoenix, Houston, and Dallas are more densely built than Boston.

In reality, the density of Manhattan is still 27,345 people per square kilometre, New York City proper’s is well north of 10,000 per square kilometer, whereas the Toronto riding of Trinity-Spadina is more like 7,800, somewhat less dense than Queens. The next-door riding of Toronto-Centre gets closer to the New York level of density, but represents a whopping two percent of the city’s land area. Parts of Toronto have grown very rapidly in the last decade, but neither the downtown nor the city as a whole are going to be mistaken for Wall Street anytime soon. That is, if you’ve got a passing familiarity with the data. Or, perhaps, eyes.

Everyone can take a breath, is my point. Toronto’s downtown has sprouted a lot of new towers, but it’s simply not true that there are “condos everywhere,” as the common complaint goes. In fact, in the last census, a huge number of census tracts lost population as the children in households aged out—going to university, or simply moving. This is particularly true in Toronto’s inner suburbs.

Also missed in much of the excitement was the fact that the Bloomberg chart was actually attached to a news story, the gist of which was that as cities see the return of rapid downtown growth, there’s a new emphasis on building critical infrastructure underground. That means roads, shops, and, in Singapore, research laboratories.

This makes sense, and, indeed, was the original justification for subways during the first era of urban intensification: taking rapid transit out of the way of clogged urban streets in rapidly growing cities. Toronto’s problem is that for the last 20 years we’ve built new transit everywhere but the growing downtown, more frequently driving empty subways into the very suburbs that are losing demographic heft. The Sheppard subway still makes a pathetically small contribution to the TTC’s daily ridership, which hit a new record this month. Everyone hopes that the Spadina extension into Vaughan will be different, and who knows, maybe it will be.

In the meantime, the growing core in Toronto has needed one (1!) project—the downtown relief line—for the last generation, and is still waiting for someone to seriously back it. A provincial government that won seats from the NDP in large part because of a promise to build transit is prepared to spend money everywhere except the city’s downtown. (Correction: a souped-up airport limo service from Pearson Airport into the core is currently under construction. You’re welcome, business travellers.) And the mayoral election... just, sigh.

One wonders, though, what it would mean if the initial misreading of the Bloomberg chart actually had been accurate. What if Toronto actually were on track to double its population in ten years? Would the city, or other levels of government, actually be able to build the kind of transit that would require?

It is, of course, not possible to know precisely what lies ahead, but like celebrated urban planner and walkable city advocate Dr. Phil always says: the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.