Toronto: Car Culture Is Alive and Well

By Janice Etter

In the last few years, Toronto’s newspapers have been full of references to “gridlock” as the city’s major transportation challenge. Letters to the editor–mainly from car drivers–rant about the amount of time it takes to travel around the city, while municipal politicians debate widening expressways and giving priority to buses and streetcars on roads. Meanwhile, the police conduct periodic enforcement campaigns, the main intent of which appears to be to limit the obstacles posed to motorized traffic flow by specifically targeting pedestrians and cyclists.

The alternative but minority view about gridlock lies in reducing the number of cars on the road (in absolute numbers and in terms of the number of trips they make each day); making public transit an attractive and viable travel option; encouraging people to make short trips by alternate means (such as walking or cycling); making movement of goods by truck more efficient; and establishing land use polices and infrastructure that support citywide public transit use, cycling and walking.

Toronto is at a critical point. It can continue to rely on motorized vehicles as the primary means of moving people and goods, or it can choose to acknowledge the enormous social, economic and environmental costs of such an approach and shift its attention to setting goals that promote alternative modes of transportation and implementing planning policies that support them.


Five years ago the City of Toronto had a population of approximately 650,000 and, under the leadership of a progressive City Council and staff, was moving steadily towards a more sustainable transportation system. With a reputation as “the city that works,” it had a strong culture of citizen participation. Since much of the city had been laid out before the automobile became dominant, it had the potential to be walking-, cycling- and transit-friendly.

Toronto was surrounded by five other municipalities–three of them essentially post-World War II bedroom suburbs–with which, since 1954, it shared an upper tier of government, the Regional Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, or Metro for short. Metro ran both the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC, known for over fifty years as one of the premier public transit systems in North America) and the arterial road system, while the individual municipalities had jurisdiction over local roads and land use. Pedestrian infrastructure was a local issue, while responsibility for cycling infrastructure was shared. Metro was also responsible for consolidated police and fire services.

In 1997, the Province of Ontario forced the amalgamation of the seven municipal governments (six local, one regional) into one “megacity.” Overnight, the City of Toronto had a population of 2.5 million people and faced the challenge of merging local and regional governance structures that had operated separately for almost half a century. Compounding the challenge has been that the new City of Toronto is the heart of the Greater Toronto Area, whose total population is over 4.5 million. The consequences of amalgamation for the future of sustainable transportation in the post-1998 Toronto have been enormous.

Amalgamation presented an unparalleled opportunity for new and creative thinking about a citywide approach to transportation. At the same time, it exacerbated the pre-existing tensions between the high-density downtown core, the medium-density inner ring of early suburbs and the outer ring of more recent lower-density suburbs that were built for the automobile. Further, the balance of power on the new City Council lay (and continues to lie) with the outer suburbs and their councilors who, with few exceptions, believe that increased car usage, and therefore expanded road capacity, is inevitable. They have little appreciation for the former city’s approach to dealing with its problems of clogged roads and a deteriorating environment through car reduction, travel demand management, transit priority and the development of an improved travel environment and infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists. Mixed and intensified land use–both so critical to reducing car dependency through facilitating expanded public transit and increased walking and cycling–are not concepts they tend to be familiar with or friendly towards. Downtown councilors have struggled to formulate transportation and land use policy alongside suburban councilors representing wards with three times the rate of car ownership, one-third the rate of transit use and very low levels of travel by cycling and walking. Five years after amalgamation, residents in the older parts of the city easily get around their neighborhoods by foot, bike or transit, while many residents in the outer suburbs have little choice but to depend on the car to access the most basic goods and services.

The opportunity for new and creative thinking about transportation was quickly squandered in the jockeying for position by a former suburban mayor, city councilors and newly-formed city departments (some of them headed by former suburban bureaucrats). The only significant nod towards acknowledging the need to reduce car usage, especially in the downtown core, has been a dramatic increase in parking fees and the installation of parking controls in areas where there were previously none. One strong indicator of the extent to which the issue of sustainable transportation was lost in the aftermath of amalgamation was the passage in 2000 of a consolidated Road Classification System, which reflected suburban values more than those of the old downtown. In the opinion of many advocates of sustainable transportation, classifying roads strictly according to traffic operations and maintenance criteria verifies the existence of a rigid hierarchy of road users. At the top is the private automobile, with transit users, pedestrians and cyclists all relegated to secondary and tertiary roles. The Road Classification System also placed control over the entire system of road rights-of-way–the major portion of the city’s public realm –under the control of Transportation Services. This created the potential for pre-empting policies aimed at better integrating transportation, transit and land use planning goals, and the long-term vision of transforming arterial roads into mixed use “avenues.” By affirming the primary function of major roads as conduits for private motorized traffic, the adoption of the Road Classification System signaled to advocates of sustainable transportation what an uphill battle they faced.

The market-driven proliferation of big-box stores and drive-thrus, especially in the suburbs, has further undermined attempts to combat car culture. Attempts are being made to prevent the incursion of these facilities into the older parts of the city, and to limit their expansion in the suburbs. On a larger stage, the Province of Ontario compounded the chaos faced by the new City of Toronto by downloading responsibility for many services and facilities, including former provincial highways that pass through the city. The province also eliminated its capital support for the transit system, and continued to cut back drastically on its operating subsidy. The city’s effort to absorb these new financial responsibilities and at the same time avoid tax increases resulted in a highly politicized battle over funding priorities that cost sustainable transportation dearly.

The only limited but substantive gains have been made by cyclists, who have been more effectively organized and vocal for the last twenty years than either transit users or pedestrians. The obstacles to furthering the cause of sustainable transportation in the new City of Toronto are daunting:

  • a monolithic, corporate-style municipal government that is more subject to influence from paid lobbyists than from the voice of citizens (who have been officially labeled “customers”);
  • the retention of power by municipal engineers whose training has made it difficult for them to make the transition to thinking about the role of urban streets as multi-functional, and the need to treat all road users–including pedestrians, cyclists and transit users–equitably and with respect;
  • a local police force that, like the Road Classification System, views pedestrians and cyclists basically as “obstacles” to motorized traffic;
  • the province’s view that Ontario’s auto industry–one of the world’s largest–is to be protected at almost any cost (since it provides 375,000 jobs, produces vehicles and parts worth $249 million a day, generates billions of dollars in provincial taxes each year, and accounts for approximately 20 percent of the province’s gross domestic product);
  • an antiquated provincial Highway Traffic Act that has not caught up with the need to protect and advance the interests of public transit users, pedestrians and cyclists;
  • a provincial government that does not view financial support of public transit in Canada’s largest city as its responsibility;
  • a federal government that has eschewed responsibility for supporting sustainable transportation in urban centers across Canada through funding and tax incentives; and
  • society’s love of car culture, which under the influence of highly sophisticated and relentless advertising, industry lobbying and the economic power of the auto industry in Ontario, strongly influences the political decision-making process at all levels.

Despite these hurdles, there are local organizations and individuals promoting sustainable planning and environmental solutions that are in harmony with global movements to make our communities more livable. Indeed, increased public concerns about air quality encouraged city politicians to sponsor North America’s first Car Free Day (albeit a modest affair) here in 2001. Additionally, local activists are fighting to rescue roads and neighborhoods from the domination of the automobile through regular demonstrations such as Critical Mass bicycle rides and Reclaim the Street events. These efforts are as much a struggle to create safe and equitable conditions for all citizens as they are a fight to take back lost public space.

Citizens’ efforts to renew the momentum for sustainable transportation are detailed in the accompanying articles. Over the past three years, the City of Toronto has been developing a new Official Plan to replace the plans of the seven former municipal governments. Still in draft form as of September, 2002, it is a visionary document intended to guide city planning for the next thirty years. At its heart is a strong emphasis on improving the city’s public realm, reducing car dependency, managing travel demand by private vehicles, promoting transit-supportive land use and transit priority, and in general creating conditions that support walking, cycling and transit use. The proposed plan has many detractors who continue to defend the prevailing car culture. It also has many supporters, however, who believe that if it is adopted and used effectively by citizens, Toronto’s transportation system can move in a new and more progressive direction that will address existing social, economic and environmental inequities.

Until then, and until the accumulated small successes of individual advocates and groups become part of a broad movement for change, the transportation system in the new Toronto will continue to: be dominated by car usage; discourage increased walking, transit use and cycling; compromise air and water quality; contribute to noise pollution; drain local economic vitality in parts of the city; impede the maintenance and development of healthy, sustainable communities; and result in thousands of collisions that alter the lives of pedestrians, transit users, cyclists and responsible motorists.

Janice Etter is a resident of Toronto and responsible urban traveler.

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