As someone who has worked in government policy development, I know that how options are presented to decision makers has an enormous influence on the outcomes. In the case of the Gardiner providing two very similar options to essentially maintain the road as is, an elevated highway, and one to completely eliminate the elevated portion ensured that the latter would appear more radical and that the more nuanced “hybrid” option would be embraced by the undecided or indifferent. In the end, through multiple votes, this is exactly how it played out, as it well might have if we held a civic referendum with three such options even though polling showed city residents in favour of some form of teardown). It was not in Mayor Tory’s interest to have only two options (maintain or tear down) or even a true hybrid (for example tear down but adding flyovers). The genuine shock of the outcome by the teardown advocates surprised me.
The good news is that no decision on infrastructure is final, certainly not in Toronto, as anyone who has witness the comedy of errors that is transit planning in the city. The billion-dollar plan to shore up and tweak the eastern Gardiner is many years away from implementation and will almost certainly change in substantial ways. This may stem from further engineering work that will increase costs, or from a shift in political winds at Council, or even some sort of magnanimous gesture from one of our senior governments. It is my own view that further options should be developed. Maybe it all my binge watching of The Good Wife on Netflix, but I really think that some sort of option like Chicago's Lakeshore Drive could and should be looked at (and not just for the eastern section of the Gardiner). Lakeshore Drive in Chicago is basically a freeway along Lake Michigan but it is built at grade with somewhat graceful flyovers and lots of parkland around it (though this last aspect my not be possible in condo crammed Toronto). I’m not an engineer but I intuit that there must some kind of true "hybrid" option somewhere between a surface street with traffic lights and a full elevated highway.
My second point has to do with priorities in the context of this city's very poor record on planning and building transportation infrastructure in the last 40 years. The Gardiner issue has been forced by the broader affliction that has affected infrastructure in this city (and country): underfunding of both its renewal and expansion that has gone on now for two generations. In Toronto in this has assumed almost tragic proportions in that we were once a model of planning and building that balanced the needs of public transit and private vehicles. But in the 1970s after the battles over building new highways into the downtown were settled, we failed to take the opportunity then presented to make meaningful investments into transit, in ways that might have truly be transformative. Governments at all levels seem to simply lose interest in the urban mobility file even as the Toronto urban region continued to grow rapidly, more than doubling in size in the last 40 years.
The reasons why Toronto and many other North American cities failed to maintain their proactive investment in urban mobility in the post war decades are complex, and could form the basis of a substantial book. In its simplest form, political priorities shifted from building hard assets to soft services like better education, universal healthcare and a more substantial safety net, all of which competed (and usually won) for resources with infrastructure. Also, and harder to explain, an ambivalence set in both among the population, and political leadership, over the purpose of infrastructure. If the 1970s expressways wars taught us anything, it’s that building things affects behaviour (this is the basic argument of "induced demand" for roadways). While this argument should have been able to be flipped around in favour of building transit and other modes of transport, we never quite got there in the hermeutic machinations of public policy and investment debates. It was easier to do nothing, and nothing we did.
Fast forward 40 years and we are faced with what to do with the crumbling legacy of post war urban highway planning. Yet we possess nothing like the certainty that Toronto's leadership of the time we built the Gardiner. The first Chairman of Metro Toronto, Frederick Gardiner, built this highway, but he also built the University and Bloor Danforth subways: he wasn't anti-road or transit, he was pro building and pro mobility. This is worth noting because the recent Gardiner debate boiled down to the usual suspects debating the usual zero sum partisan positions: essentially cars versus transit. But this isn’t the real issue of our current urban transportation conundrum: it is building on a scale and with deliberate purpose to change the ways we travel versus doing effectively nothing. We have chosen the latter since that promising time 40 years ago when the expressway builder’s wrecking balls were stopped. Virtually no new transit capacity has been added into the core since the 1970s. So it’s an open question? Do we deserve to tear down our inner city highways? With so much opportunity squandered, it is unclear.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this debate is the public’s ongoing ambivalence. The recent referendum in Vancouver on a major transit investment plan showed that the majority appear to prefer to sit in their cars in gridlock rather than pay even the most modest additional amount in taxes. Other pundits may analyze this result in different ways, but my takeaway is that we need to bring back the kind of leadership and certainty of those who built Toronto’s postwar infrastructure. The public is deeply confused, and only has the often terrible current experience of transit as a reference point. Similar order of magnitude investments would be as transformative for transit and active transportation (cycling, walking) as the massive road building schemes were in getting us all to buy cars. But until that time, we may have to live with our legacy eyesores like the Gardiner Expressway. It is a powerful reminder of our need to act.