We’ve hit a bunch of controversy in Toronto lately over tabled plans to tear down a small section the Gardiner Expressway. It’s brought to my city a debate over existing highway infrastructure that has raged or is still raging all over these days — from New York to Seoul to Oklahoma City. It can be characterized as new urbanists versus conservative planners, the city versus the suburbs, and livability versus big business. Mostly, though, it’s all about the car.
For those not familiar with the city, the Gardiner is the main east-west highway through the city, and it was built — rather foolishly — right across the waterfront at Lake Ontario. As a result, the city proper essentially comes to an end a few kilometers from the lake’s shore, with mostly industrial and (lately) hastily constructed condo towers filling the space.
Despite the crappy planning that plunked this highway in a prime urban location, it has become a very heavily used backbone to the city’s business infrastructure. If you’re a commuter, you’re likely to use the Gardiner. From the West, especially, it’s the fastest way into downtown.
They’re not talking about tearing down the whole thing — it’s been discussed in the past, but we don’t really have the political will to do that — but rather just a section on the eastern side that is the most lightly used of the whole stretch.
The protests against the plan have been predictable. One of the loudest voices in opposition has been talk radio mainstay David Menzies, who wrote a rather scathing editorial in The National Post, concluding:
Bottom line: tearing down any section of the Gardiner would be akin to dropping a nuke on the thousands of commuters (a. k. a. taxpayers) who depend on it daily. The time is now for all reasonable Torontonians to denounce such ideological madness before it’s too late.
He also sounds the horn for the continuing importance of commuter infrastructure like the city’s expressways on a level I’ve rarely seen. Check this out:
With the GTA’s population continuing to increase, one would think expressway construction, not demolition, would be the order of the day. Instead of tearing down sections of the Gardiner, the city should seriously think about adding a second deck. However, the powers-that-be at City Hall have no desire for projects that improve traffic-flow. Their cure-all advice for beleaguered commuters seems to be this: A. move downtown; B. trade car for bicycle.
Making all highways double decker is a hilarious solution to traffic congestion, isn’t it? Let’s go even bigger with the highways! Sixteen lanes wide! Two stories tall! Let’s demolish buildings to make room! Instead of actually going to an office building, people can just drive around all day, talking on their cellphones, marveling at the spaciousness of the road. Badass.
I’m a commuter. I’ve been a commuter for almost a year now. I rely on that very section of the Gardiner expressway the powers-that-be are proposing taking down. If it comes to fruition, I’d have to drastically change the way in which I do my job.
But still I support the plan. Tear it down.
What people like Menzies and other opponents seem to miss is that we have not, by a long shot, established a ‘finalized’ mode of work. The suburban-to-urban commuter model has become the ‘norm’ only in the last 40 years because of a unique situation with regards to cars, gas prices and a business world based on handshakes, typewriters and the suit-and-tie.
We have changed much over the last decade, and we’ll continue to change. Generation Y is a huge factor, as is the computer and other networked technologies. And the biggest factor may end up being gas prices, as they’re already making people deeply consider their living and working situation in a way they never would have when gas was 60 cents a litre. (That’s $2.30 a gallon, for the Americans.)
In a changing landscape, you don’t just build that which worked before. We need to look beyond what we’ve done in the past and build structures that support new models for working and living — for Gen Y, for the environment, for our cities, and for the lasting success of businesses who will depend on all of those things.