Ford’s plans for Ontario need a rethink and moving trucks to 407 is a good start

Premier Ford and his government are constantly pitching their vision of city growth in the Greater Toronto region. It involves doubling down on building big highways, large detached houses with yards and picket fences and promising Ontarians that they will be able to afford all of it.

His sales pitches harken back to a simpler time in the 1950s when Toronto was smaller, had fewer people, and houses were much cheaper. You see, in the 1950s, the present-day 401 was farm country, the GTA’s population was a little over 1 million and you could purchase a home with just over 50 per cent of your annual income. 

A lot has changed since then. Today, the GTA spans 7,125 km2, is home to just shy of six million people and the average home will cost you 17 times your annual income. 

The problem with the Premier’s approach is that it relies on nostalgia for a time long gone and on accelerating a form of urban growth that has created the housing and environmental crises that we are experiencing today.

A bygone era

First the highways. New ones can seem like a good idea when they are first proposed. People can envision those car-commercial open roads with not another vehicle in sight. The reality is less pastoral and soon those new highways are like the old ones… choked solid with cars and many, many trucks. This phenomenon is known as “induced demand” and describes how building a new highway attracts sprawling subdivisions and a lot more more cars soon clog it up. Ample real world evidence of this reality exists across the GTA.

The creation and boom of suburbs over the last 70 years has been the biggest driver of car and highway dependency. The widely dispersed houses and businesses characteristic of these areas make building and maintaining public transit hard as there are often too few people living in a given area to make it viable. Placing homes on winding cul-de-sacs and prohibiting shops and services from being built in neighbourhoods means walking or biking, even to the nearest corner store, is incredibly inconvenient. Taken together, this outdated approach to city building means people have no choice but to move around in a car.

Even if people would prefer to live in more urban and walkable communities, they don’t really have a choice but to live in car-dependent suburbs. For too long, the creation of any new homes in older established neighbourhoods in downtown cores or in the oldest post-war suburbs has been prohibited. So the only option left for newcomers was to move to where the homes were being built, which for the last 70 years, has been further and further from city centres on land that was previously farms and forests.

On the affordability front, house prices have leapfrogged ahead of wage increases since the late 1990s and now are so stratospheric that almost no one who does not already own property or have wealthy parents can buy a home. A major market correction seems unlikely, making the possibility of owning one of these very large suburban homes with their monster monthly mortgage payments out of reach for the majority of us.

How about a different approach that better reflects reality? 

Instead of new highways like the proposed 413, why not make better use of the ones we have already built and paid for and invest in giving people real alternative ways to get around? We could make the 401 less crowded by subsidizing trucks to take the 407. As a toll highway, it is largely underused and would give truckers a time saving and stress break by allowing them to by-pass Toronto if they wanted to. The billions of dollars saved could be used to build a transitway along the 407 right of way to link east-west communities, increase GO Transit service to Vaughan and build a Brampton extension of the Mississauga LRT. Just to name a few.

We could also build new urban communities like the Heritage Heights neighbourhood Brampton Council has proposed for its western edges. The proposed neighbourhood has homes, shops, transit and walkability designed from the ground up and it’s all at risk if Highway 413 is built. We can also support cities such as Hamilton, Kitchener and Halton in their efforts to build new affordable and accessible homes and neighbourhoods inside of their existing boundaries.

The key is that decision makers need to listen to experts. We can heed the advice of the recent report from the Task Force for Housing and Climate. Their blueprint for building a better future recommended ditching the rules that prohibit new homes and shops from being built in existing neighbourhoods in our cities, freeing up builders to create much needed multi-unit dwellings that are bigger than 450 sq ft for families who want to live in walkable communities. The group has also highlighted needed changes to building codes that would make building more multi-unit homes in cities more cost effective and energy efficient. All of these suggestions, combined with income tax reform to encourage more rental buildings, would increase urban housing supply and give families more choice about where to live. 

We can also have our governments return to providing meaningful support for new home creation in the form of using public land, supporting rent-to-own and cooperative housing as well as providing homes for those who have no near-term chance of participating in the rental or purchased housing market.

These are all ideas that are practical and grounded in research and in the lived experience of millions of people in our region. These real solutions can and should be the priorities of any government that says they want to ‘get it done’ and address the housing, transportation and environmental crises that plague us. 

Tim Gray is executive director of Environmental Defence.

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