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Toronto Mayor John Tory in Toronto, Thursday March 12, 2015.Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Did John Tory wimp out by coming out against tearing down part of the Gardiner Expressway?

On CBC Radio, Metro Morning host Matt Galloway reminded the mayor that his mentor Bill Davis stopped the Spadina expressway in 1971 when he was the Conservative premier of Ontario. Why, ask his critics, can't Mr. Tory find the courage to tear down even a part of the old monster? The way they make it sound, he is joining the forces of darkness and embracing a discredited car-worshipping past.

The mayor, not surprisingly, doesn't see things that way. He notes dryly that he is not proposing to build a new expressway, as Spadina's backers did in Mr. Davis's time. Like it or not, the Gardiner exists.

Mr. Tory says that before announcing on Tuesday that he was against removing the Gardiner east of Jarvis Street, he pored through a pile of studies on the issue. He also grilled city staff about the options. His decision, when it came, was a practical one.

No one is talking about tearing down the whole expressway and, say, putting it in a tunnel, as some cities have done at huge expense. The city is only considering taking down 1.7 kilometres of the expressway at the eastern end, leaving the whole western stretch standing.

The "remove" option would erase the Gardiner east of Jarvis and replace it with an "eight-lane, tree-lined Lake Shore Boulevard." The "hybrid" option would keep most of the eastern stretch up but remove the long ramps that take cars on and off the Gardiner and connect to the Lake Shore on the eastern side of the Don River. Both options free up land east of the Don for development.

Most urbanists much prefer "remove." The expressway, they say, is a throwback to the day when the car was king. Best to take down the eastern part and replace it with a boulevard lined with coffee shops, stores, apartment blocks and offices. Artists' renderings show a pleasant-looking street with families strolling, rollerbladers rolling, cyclists biking and only a few hazily drawn autos in sight.

Mr. Tory is skeptical. After looking over the plans, he concluded that "we are masquerading this as an idyllic place where you'll sit and have a picnic with your family." Instead, he says, it could become a "hugely busy street" that amounts to an "at-grade expressway, or pretty darned close to it."

He is right to worry. Imagine the effect of bringing all the traffic from the Gardiner and all the traffic from the Lake Shore and combining it on that one boulevard? Automobiles that used to swing from the DVP onto the Gardiner would spill onto the revised Lake Shore and promptly hit traffic lights. Autos coming along the Gardiner from the west would do the same as they came down off the expressway.

The hybrid option is more costly, yes. But any cost has to be weighed against the cost of congestion both to the economy and to individuals through longer commuting times. The mayor says he is "not prepared to inflict that damage on people's lives."

This was not an easy decision. As the mayor points out, he was not picking between a perfect option and a terrible one. He was picking between two flawed solutions to a thorny problem. The Gardiner is a costly headache for the city, which spends millions every year just to keep it from falling to pieces. It is also a crucial piece of the city's transportation network. Even with the best transit in the world – and Toronto is far short of having that – the city would need some kind of automobile link to the core, not just for motorists commuting to offices but for all the trucks making deliveries or carrying construction materials.

Tearing the eastern part down has its advantages. It frees up more land for development, netting the city some extra money. It reduces upkeep costs substantially over coming decades. Tearing it down has its disadvantages, too – chiefly longer travel times in an already congested city.

Keeping the eastern section standing has its advantages. It causes less short-term pain from construction and is better for traffic flow. But it costs more and could crowd out some nice waterfront improvements.

Mr. Tory weighed the options carefully and made a choice, which is what he was elected to do. His decision was consistent with his stand during the election campaign and consistent with the current campaign he is waging against congestion by, among other things, cracking down on rush-hour lane blockers.

Disagree with his call if you like. He is bound to face plenty of opposition when the issue comes to city council, the next step after the city's public works committee forwarded the issue to council on Wednesday without favouring either option. Just don't say his decision makes him a slavish fan of expressways or a captive of the highway lobby. It's not as simple as that.

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