Transport infrastructure is like plumbing: it should facilitate flows and not necessarily look pretty.
The public debate about Gardiner Expressway has missed that very point. Instead of focusing on the core function of the Expressway, i.e., enhancing accessibility to Canada’s largest and most successful employment hub, the conversation has been centred on aesthetics and the potential for land development.
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As a transport professional, I am concerned about the following. First, the process adopted for the Environmental Assessment (EA) leaves much to be desired. Second, the City Staff’s recommendation to tear down the eastern section understates, if not ignores, the travel time delays associated with the remove option. Third, false assertions about travel time impacts in the media have not been addressed.
Let’s first look at the process. The terms of reference (ToR) for the EA stated five explicit goals for the project, of which only one focused on transportation. Again, the stated goal for transportation was not to improve accessibility and reduce travel times. Instead, it listed a vague, directionless statement “to maintain an effective local and regional transportation system, including commuters and freight, and minimize the impacts by balancing alternative travel modes, including transit, cycling and walking within the system.”
The process was also flawed because of bounded rationality. The ToR confined the choice set to four arbitrary alternatives: maintain, improve, replace, and remove. It is understandable to restrict alternatives to a manageable number. But this particular choice set would, by default, have resulted in ‘maintain’ being the costliest to implement. And if travel time impacts were ignored altogether, ‘maintain’ would again appear less appealing.
Another lacuna in the process was the order in which information was presented for public consultation. Instead of first presenting the travel time impacts of the four alternatives, which were shared with the public only this month, the EA released architectural renderings of the four alternatives in June 2013 and asked citizens to vote on their favourite design. This exercise implied that travel time considerations would not have mattered if the citizens were to choose the ‘prettiest’ of the four alternatives.
The June 2013 document paints a rosy after the fact picture of cities that replaced expressways with boulevards. The document, for instance, mentions Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco that was replaced with a promenade. The EA document fails to mention how traffic was redistributed from Embarcadero Freeway to local streets, such as Fremont Street, which experienced a 192 per cent increase in traffic, or 6th Street, which experienced a 67 per cent increase in traffic.
It is wrong to assume that traffic simply disappears after a freeway is removed. The proponents of the remove option, who believe in the assumption, fail to appreciate that the absence of proof is not proof of absence. The fact that published research on the impact of expressway removal is not available for all cities does not mean that there was no impact on traffic patterns or travel times. However, technical studies of the impact of freeway removals have shown that “individual roads within the case studies saw substantial increases or decreases much higher than the average change for the area, which may be a cause for concern from a congestion standpoint.”
The City staff’s recommendation to remove Gardiner Expressway ignores traffic studies, conducted as part of the EA, which show increases in travel times of up to 20 per cent for the remove option compared to the maintain option. Still, this did not pre-empt the City Staff to present an un-weighted matrix of the four alternatives where worsening travel times for commuters and freight were included along with other less relevant concerns, such as the ‘public realm’.
Earlier studies commissioned by the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation and others have consistently shown that the remove option will result in longer commutes as it will reduce operating speeds by 10 to 15 km per hour. Despite this, writing in the Toronto Star on January 28, 2014, J. Michael Kirkland claimed that in “two-thirds of cases, a commuter to downtown from the west could make the same trip in more or less the same time without the elevated structure.” Mr. Kirkland, however, does not have any documentation to back up his claim.
At its core, the Gardiner Expressway is a critical component of the city’s transport network that is vital to the continued success of Toronto’s downtown. No wonder then that representatives of downtown employers in the round table organized by the deputy mayor, Norm Kelly last week unanimously supported the maintain option.
The City Council yesterday made the right choice by deferring the decision on Gardiner Expressway to February 2015. As it stands today, we are being forced to choose from an incomplete choice set while we ignore the concerns of employers and workers in downtown Toronto. Rushing into a decision, even for an expressway, will be foolish.