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opinion

New homes are built in a housing construction development in the west-end of Ottawa on Thursday, May 6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean KilpatrickSean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Suburban sprawl makes traffic worse. We know this. It’s obvious. There are decades of evidence, and millions upon millions of human hours wasted in traffic jams across North America to prove it. When you put homes way beyond the reach of public transit, far from jobs, schools and shops, it forces people to drive everywhere.

And yet, more car-centric sprawl is exactly what Ontario Premier Doug Ford is doing with new regulations that will open 7,400 acres of the Greenbelt to developers to build at least 50,000 homes. The land was set aside in 2005, in perpetuity, to prevent exactly this kind of sprawling suburban development. The idea was to protect environmentally sensitive wetlands, green spaces and farmland to mitigate flooding, protect our food supply, reduce habitat loss, and encourage recreation.

It’s hard to imagine a worse response to the many problems facing this province. Setting aside the fact Ontario’s Housing Affordability Task Force report found, “a shortage of land isn’t the cause of the problem” – and recommended greater housing density and an end to exclusionary municipal rules that prevent new housing – let’s talk about what Greenbelt development will do to traffic congestion across the region.

In short, it will force Ontarians to waste even more time stuck in traffic. This is an issue that both the SUV-loving suburban crowd and the bike-lane-loving walkable-cities crowd should be on the same page about.

“Obviously, it’s going to make traffic worse,” said Shoshanna Saxe, who holds the Canada Research Chair in sustainable infrastructure and is an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s department of civil and mineral engineering. “It’s going to make the losing battle of maintaining our roads worse. On every possible metric, no matter what the thing is you like – unless it’s a new subdivision in green fields – it’s likely to make it worse.”

Victoria Podbielski, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, said in an e-mail, “the lands selected for removal are adjacent to existing settlement area and close to infrastructure such as roads, highways and transit.”

There are some GO train stations in the Greenbelt, but they are few and far between. These are clearly car-centric developments.

The fact that when developers plop 50,000 homes down in green fields, those people need 50,000 cars to get anywhere. More likely, they’ll be two-car households, so make that 100,000 new cars hitting the road, and many more after that as the region expands.

If you’re thinking work-from-home is the answer to our congestion woes, well, it doesn’t seem to be. Average traffic congestion levels in major Canadian cities are expected to be back or near to prepandemic levels this year, according to data from TomTom NV, a location and navigation services provider to Uber, Apple Maps and others.

With the decision to open up the Greenbelt, Ontario is “really going all-in on the opposite of what the evidence base will tell you about how to deliver effective land-use transportation planning that would serve the most number of people in the best way,” Saxe said.

There’s a question of affordability, too. The need to spend, say, $24,000 a year on two leased cars, gas, insurance and maintenance costs, will erode the money saved by buying a less-expensive house in a more remote location. Unless all of those new Greenbelt homes come with electric vehicles, and even if they do, there’ll be an environmental cost, too. (The human cost of hours wasted in daily commutes, away from friends and family, are harder to calculate but no less real.)

“If you’re building houses over here and the jobs are over there someplace else, you’re setting up the system to fail,” said Eric Miller, director of Mobility Network, the University of Toronto’s Transportation Research Institute. “You’re locking people into long commutes, and it’s going to be by car, because transit isn’t going to be able to connect you.”

Miller’s research focuses on understanding and modelling travel behaviour. To do that, he and his team create detailed computer simulations of cities. (Imagine the Matrix, but for transportation and land-use planning.) His simulations are used by several municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area to analyze and forecast travel demands.

While he hasn’t included the proposed Greenbelt development in his simulations, he said that as these new suburbs get bigger and bigger, there will be more congestion.

Congestion is non-linear, he explained. If one lane of highway is congested with, for example, 2,000 cars using one lane of road, adding one more car will increase travel time for all 2,001 cars by, say, 10 seconds. The second added car will increase travel time for everyone by 12 more seconds, and on and on. Travel time rises more-or-less exponentially, he said. (Conversely, if we could just get a growing proportion of drivers to work from home, carpool or take transit, the benefits would also add up quickly.)

Highway 413, the Ford government’s new 59-kilometre route running across the northwest portion of the Greater Toronto Area, is too far north to relieve congestion on Highway 401 or the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW), Miller said. But those drivers from the proposed Greenbelt development will inevitably end up getting on the QEW, or the 401, and contributing to the congestion on those routes, he said.

A 2015 report by an expert advisory panel convened by the former Ontario Liberal government found that a new highway in the region would only cut 30 seconds off travel times. It’s not exactly a good return on a $6-billion to $9-billion investment. After that, the Liberal government shelved the idea. If you’re going to spend that much money, why not spend it on something that fixes the root problems? (That same expert panel had three alternative recommendations, including congestion pricing, shifting trucks to Highway 407, and less sprawl, all of which would reduce travel time.)

“[Highways] have been shown to be one of the No. 1 predictors of congestion,” Saxe said. Evidence shows again and again that highways encourage more people to move farther away from the places they need to go, and to drive longer distances.

By 2031, the provincial government expects approximately 1.5 million new residents in the densely populated Greater Golden Horseshoe, a region centred around Toronto that encompasses the western end of Lake Ontario. Across the entire province, Statistics Canada predicts the population will grow by more than four million people by 2043.

“Traffic is going to be somewhat worse, because some of those people, no matter what we do, are going to be driving,” Miller said. “The whole challenge is to provide alternatives to people so that not everybody always has to drive for everything they do.” By that metric at least, the car-centric Greenbelt development is the worst possible way to house more people.

Miller couldn’t put a number on how much traffic congestion would increase as a result of the Greenbelt development, but in his expert opinion, “it’s just about as bad and dumb as you can do.”