john sewell

Toronto is world-class in at least one thing: Traffic congestion

Last month, the city passed an important milestone. Toronto’s anxiety about whether it was a world-class city was displaced by its anxiety about traffic congestion and the fact that you could not travel around the city. Period.

The world-class anxiety flowered when Art Eggleton was mayor in the 1980s, and for several decades it lurked behind most major decisions. Mayor Rob Ford pushed it out of focus by dint of his personal activities. I remember in Berlin when we told the cabby where we were from, and he said with a cruel laugh, ‘You have that mayor who seems to have some problems, eh?’

The anxiety roared back with Mayor John Tory who couldn’t resist the opportunity for Toronto to make its mark by hosting a few FIFA World Cup games. Now that he is gone, and we learn that the cost of those games is something in the range of $7 million a minute, world-class status somehow doesn’t seem to mean so much. Instead, we have traffic congestion anxiety.

The month began with the possibility of a transit strike and the psychosis set in: we would all be stranded at the curb. The city would grind to a halt. Not everyone could work from home — we need clerks in shops, shoppers in stores, servers in restaurants, and for many the idea of doing business locally was simply not a reasonable option. The city was doomed until the TTC union and management settled, and we sighed our relief.

Then came the announcement that the Spadina streetcar would be replaced by buses running on the street to confound the traffic. Craziness. People began looking more closely at the TTC finances — service levels were not being maintained, money was not there for the needed capital repairs let alone for expanding service, and the TTC cars kept breaking down to remind us that the anxiety had not gone away.

The stress level was so high that no one thought to mention that Metrolinx refused to say whether the Eglinton subway line would be operational in our lifetime. Roadway concerns loomed into view. With the Gardiner Expressway undergoing repairs, travel times there were up 250 per cent. One driver complained it would have been faster for her to get out of her car and walk — imagine that. Maybe we should just forget about the repairs and drive until the Gardiner falls into the ground where it belongs.

I made the mistake of trying to drive along Bloor. The west bound part of the street at Avenue Road had been dug up, and we were restricted to one lane eastbound. Horrors again, and, in an unmoving vehicle, I thought of the construction everywhere, all to accommodate the demolition of rental buildings and their replacement with condo towers and the new wires and pipes they need. Everywhere you turn, I thought, with no room to consider world-class status.

And don’t forget the cyclists and the war they wage with the cars. Bike lanes have been expanded and are well used, but those cyclists keep asking for more room to move safely, as though they should have some travel status in the city — even asking for bike lanes on Avenue north of Bloor. If you know that stretch, you are aware you can speed up and move quickly on those six lanes, providing there aren’t more drivers who want to do the same, cyclist safety be damned. Speed softens anxiety.

I am not sure where all of this leads — maybe it circles back to world-class status. I was in England recently and, as we sat unmoving in traffic, the cabby said, ‘London is number one in the world survey of traffic congestion, and it’s all because our mayor wants more bike lanes.’ Which reminded me that that survey said Toronto was number three on the congestion index.

If we work a bit harder we can have world-class status on traffic congestion.

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