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City staff are expected to recommend tearing down or simply maintaining the eastern section of the Gardiner Expressway. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
City staff are expected to recommend tearing down or simply maintaining the eastern section of the Gardiner Expressway. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee: As it stands, Gardiner teardown is a bad idea Add to ...

A new report on the future of the Gardiner Expressway suggests four options for the crumbling behemoth: improve it, replace it, maintain it or remove it. It ranks each option against a number of criteria, from the cost to the time it would take for construction to the effect on pedestrians, cyclists and the natural environment. Removing it comes out ahead by just about every measure, except two: automobile travel times and the movement of goods.

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Those just happen to be the very two things the expressway was built for – to move cars with people in them and trucks with freight in them across the bottom of the city. Saying that removal of the Gardiner is the best option if it were not for the traffic-moving thing is like saying using a baseball bat is the best way to play hockey except for the puck-moving thing.

The Gardiner may be a costly old eyesore, but it is a key part of Toronto’s transportation network. Combined with the Don Valley Parkway to the east, the 427 to the west and the 401 to the north, it completes the circle of highways that encloses the central city, allowing motorists to travel from top to bottom and side to side without negotiating city streets. In a haphazard Toronto sort of way, these four arteries constitute the equivalent of the ring roads that encircle many modern cities.

Tearing down the Gardiner east of Jarvis Street, as proposed in the removal option, would take a bite out of the ring and break the circle. Instead of coming south off the DVP onto the Gardiner, motorists would find themselves dumped onto city streets complete with stop lights and crossing pedestrians. Instead of coming along the elevated Gardiner and curving north onto the DVP, eastbound motorists would descend to street level and run into the same problem. In place of the Gardiner and the Lakeshore, they would find a broad new boulevard. It would be as if you took a stretch in the middle of the 401 and converted it to a wide street like University or Finch Avenue.

Imagine the effect of all that speeding traffic spilling suddenly onto a city street. The whole point of a highway, after all, is to separate cars from the things – stop signs, traffic lights, pedestrians, cyclists, other cars parking and making turns – that impede the flow of traffic.

The new report says removing the eastern part of the Gardiner could add up to 10 minutes each way to a commute downtown, and that is assuming that the city builds more mass transit to take pressure off the roads. Add in the extra traffic that is expected to come with population growth, and a car trip from Don Mills Road and Eglinton Avenue to downtown in morning rush hour would take 40 minutes by 2031, compared with 25 minutes today. For a city already facing traffic congestion that is believed to cost billions a year – not to mention the price in frustration – that is intolerable.

The authors of the study say longer travel times have to be weighed against the benefits of removal, from sharply lower maintenance costs to smoother waterfront access. In place of the Gardiner, it foresees a ground-level boulevard lined with patios, shops and 1,200 new trees, a kind of urbanist’s nirvana. But it is far from clear that an eight-lane boulevard with traffic hurrying along it and condos and other buildings lining it would be vastly better.

It is right for the city to think about moving away from dependence on the automobile. The Gardiner is a costly symbol of that dependence. Perhaps, one day, the city will need to tear all of it down or bury it. But if we are going to quit the car, we had better find a better way of moving people, and, in a city that is far behind many of its peers in building mass transit, that day is a long way off. In the meantime, we still need highways. Tearing a chunk out of the main thoroughfares is no way to solve Toronto’s transportation problem.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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