It’s a well-known fact that it’s not possible to relieve traffic congestion by building more roads in a rapidly densifying city. Research has shown that when we add capacity to our road network, within a very short period of time additional commuters are induced to drive, leading to impassable congestion.
Two University of Toronto professors, Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner, quantified this phenomena through historical data, showing that road construction goes hand-in-hand with an increase in traffic thanks to the “fundamental law of road congestion.”
We also know that great cities of the world have been able to continue to grow exponentially by planning for movement by adding options or increasing choice. While cycling is just beginning to ramp up in North American cities as part of this recognition of the need to provide more choice and embrace sustainability, the long-time hallmark of a city with choice has been excellent — exceptional, even (think New York City, Paris) — public transit.
But one choice that has the potential to reduce our greenhouse gases while also making our cities safer, quieter and cleaner, critically, is the option to live closer to where we work, and within walking distance or a short transit/cycle ride of the amenities needed for everyday life. Imagine the change in your daily routine if, instead of getting in your car every morning, you tied on your shoes and walked to work.
While it is inevitable that many of us need to travel on a regional scale from time to time, such as to take a vacation, see a specialist or visit families and friends, commuting every day on a regional scale to and from work will always be resource and time intensive — even with high-speed, high frequency transit. If we truly want to reduce congestion, and if we truly care about becoming a more sustainable city, increasing housing choice and affordable housing near the places where people work should be at the top of our city-building agenda.
So when we think about the 19 kilometres of light-rail transit currently under construction on Eglinton Ave., running through the heart of our city, we will miss the mark once again if we treat this investment — and opportunity — as simply a transit infrastructure project, as opposed to a critical city-building initiative.
Densifying Eglinton through midrise development that provides more opportunities for people to live in the heart of the city with high frequency transit access, and as part of walkable neighbourhoods, is about providing housing choice. And more housing choice along key transit corridors is essential to unlocking the congestion puzzle.
But, skeptics may wonder — thinking of the noisy, traffic nightmare that Eglinton is today — is this a real choice? A livable choice? A choice for families? Our avenues will only become desirable, linear neighbourhoods if we reconceive them as complete streets where people move in a variety of ways, including as pedestrians on widened sidewalks lined with shops, medical services, daycares and schools, and separated cycle tracks, as they densify.
We know that the fastest growing demographic in our city — echo boomers, between the ages of 18-34 — are actively trading off a larger house and a long commute for a more urban lifestyle. On the other end of the spectrum, we also know that seniors are downsizing, and in many instances looking for housing choices near the neighbourhoods where they already live. Our avenues, if we get them right, could be home to both of these growing demographics.
Building transit on our existing corridors and leaving them primarily for cars would neglect the opportunity to create these new neighbourhoods, which is as critical to addressing congestion as the transit investment itself. And transit users are pedestrians, so a quality, safe public realm is essential to well-designed LRT.
We must transform our main transit avenues into the future city, the city we desire, the place that we are seeking to become. This future city is comprised of great places to live with a high quality of life where it is possible to walk, shop, cycle to school and take transit to work. It does take some imagining, and some belief, but it will also take tenacity because we have a long way to go.