(Below is a proposal that I sent to the City of Toronto during their public consultation for the Allen Road Terms of Reference for Environmental Assessment, on January, 2013)
The three main feeding arterials surrounding the planned Lawrence-Allen revitalization area – Dufferin St., Bathurst St. and Lawrence Ave. – are already suffering of severe traffic congestion during most times of the day, including weekends due to the large commercial presence. With the projected increase of about 20,000 new residents in this area, the amount of new private vehicles can easily be expected to reach well over 5,000 within the same area. A large portion of these new vehicles flooding into the three main arterials, mentioned above, during rush hour will increase the existing congestion and air pollution, even more. This will contribute to a reduction of the quality of life of its immediate neighbours, and Torontonians, in general. Also, but not less important, it will be a cause of grave safety concern, due to the increased traffic pressure on local roads, which are always full of pedestrians, of all ages, and of children biking.
The above is a reflection of a pattern going on for many decades in our city, where we have seen big government efforts to increase the population within this, former low-density, metropolis, but without providing the adequate transportation infrastructure to support the intended, and gained population growth. Some urban planners call this densification as “Smart Growth”, believing that higher densification will help people commute shorter distances, and that would help justify the increase of mass transportation systems. Their ideal is to get commuters off their private vehicle, and into mass transit. Objectionably, I call this situation as “Irresponsible Growth”, since the government is getting a significant increase on development fees and property taxes, but have not given the necessary infrastructure, in return.
For decades, reality has showed us that mass transit growth has not been provided adequately, due to a continuous lack of funding to build an ever more costly public transit system. Additionally, there has been a negligible increase of Toronto’s road network for almost half a century. This latter lack of road growth, has been intentional, in the most part, since there have been a series of government policies aimed to reduce car use, which are ultimately reflected in the transportation vision professed by the current Toronto’s Official Plan. However, despite this 40+ years effort to “reduce car dependency”, the proportion of private vehicle vs. public transit commute has remained fairly unchanged (as reported by the Transportation Tomorrow Survey, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Toronto). This is mainly due to the speed and comfort advantages that a personal vehicle provides, compared to public transit. Unless commuters get an appreciable time and/or comfort advantage given by transit over their private vehicle, they will not switch their modes of transport. Or, if they manage to live and work within a convenient transit route, something that is becoming increasingly unaffordable in a city that continues to increase its density.
Planners for the Lawrence-Allen Revitalization Plan seem to expect that the additional 20K+ residents will have a minimum impact on local road traffic. These planners believe that the majority will use transit (utilizing the existing Spadina-Yonge subway line), or that they would bike/walk to work, or school. Some planners are even suggesting eliminating the Allen Road’s expressway condition, by converting it into a surface boulevard with traffic-light intersections. However, they don’t seem to realize that these new residents’ place of employment might not be in downtown, or at walking/cycling distance, but in Etobicoke, or Scarborough, or Mississauga, or Richmond Hill, or Ajax, etc. Therefore, where is the mass transit system that will let them commute to those diverse areas in a reasonable time, so they can leave their private vehicle at home? Or, when will that transit system be provided to these residents? With the speed of transit development Toronto, it might not possibly happen during their entire lifetime.
The key in urban transportation planning is, also, to invest in continued road construction and development. It is less expensive, and in many cases more effective than mass transit construction. And, it can be tolled. Privately owned Highway 407, despite all the initial public complains, is widely popular, and is helping Highway 401 to not end in total paralysis. The self-defeatist notion of “we can’t build our way out of congestion”, as if new highway construction would bring even more congestion, is misleading, since its premise is just a reflection of fast densification, with slow provision of new road infrastructure.
Jane Jacobs was an important public figure who came out as a result of insensitive road development in the 1950’s and 1960’s. During those decades, large areas of well-established residential neighbourhoods were razed to give room for new highways. Consequently, this lead to the polarization of the anti-car political movement, which contributed to a stop of any new road development. However, in Toronto we can avoid to make the same mistakes of the past. This city has an extensive network of hydro corridors, as well as highway and railway corridors, where new roads or highways can be laid out on the surface, or elevated above. This way we can protect the existing neighbourhoods, while making them safe from intrusive traffic.
Decking Proposal for the Allen Road
Having said the above, I propose that, in order to provide some adequate road capacity for the additional traffic pressures of the Lawrence-Allen Revitalization Plan area, we need to further utilize the Allen Road corridor with a new road over a deck on top. This new Allen Boulevard will provide an additional exit and access from/to the neighbourhood, with connections into the Allen expressway below, and also directly onto Highway 401.
The new deck over the Allen Rd. also provides the opportunity to lay down a linear park along the new Allen Boulevard, connecting Lawrence Avenue with the Yorkdale Mall. The new park will give ample room for walking, biking and other community-inspired activities, as well as areas for cafes, restaurants, or ice skating trails during the winter season.
Similar deck-over-highways parks have been developed in various cities in North America, like Boston, Phoenix, or Seattle, with construction costs reaching US$500 per square foot (“Dallas Covers Highway With Greenery” – http://www.governing.com/columns/urban-notebook/dallas-covers-highway-greenery.html).
The area proposed for decking over the Allen Road (between Lawrence Avenue and south of Ranee Avenue), is about 500,000 square feet, therefore, its cost can reach $250 million. This cost can be recovered via property taxes on the new residential developments, as well as new commercial real estate developments along the sides of the new Allen Boulevard. In any case, it would be an enormous contribution by the city to the new neighbourhoods. Also, in the future, this decking can be further extended south of Lawrence Avenue, therefore reconnecting the two sides separated by the Allen Road.
The city of Toronto has the challenge to provide adequate transportation infrastructure for the increasing densities of Lawrence-Allen. However, it also has the opportunity to utilize the existing Allen Road corridor for improved road capacity, and to create an iconic park that would attract Torontonians from every corner of this city.