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Early morning commuters move slowly on the southbound DonValley Parkway towards the Millwood Rd. underpass as they head into work in the downtown Toronto core on Nov. 29 2013.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Toronto is gambling that local drivers will change their behaviour enough to cut the city's usual traffic volume by 20 per cent during the Pan Am Games this summer and prevent severe delays on some highways.

But unlike other sporting host cities that put a huge emphasis on transit, Toronto cannot shift major traffic volumes onto its overloaded system. Instead, officials are looking at public transit as just one tool for reducing traffic during the events in July and August.

In a coincidence that showed the strains on Toronto's transportation network, a briefing on Tuesday about the Pan Am mobility plan took place during a shutdown of the heavily used Yonge subway line below Bloor Street, forcing passengers to use crowded shuttle buses through the morning rush hour and into the afternoon.

At the briefing, officials with the games and provincial government said the worst delays would be about 20 minutes on key highways, not including slowdowns because of weather or collisions. The officials said that at best, the impact would be minimal – but that assumes travel not related to the games will drop by 20 per cent.

"I think it is very optimistic, to say the least," said Ryerson professor Murtaza Haider, director of the Institute of Housing and Mobility. "Given the interventions that they have showed … it is highly unlikely they will have a 20-per-cent reduction in travel."

Officials from the Games and government are hoping that people and businesses will avoid rush hour travel and that construction delays can be minimized. An app will help drivers pick the least congested routes and times. Car-pool lanes will be established. Spectators and residents will be encouraged to take transit.

Officials note that Toronto's traffic-reduction goal is less than was achieved during the Olympics in London and Vancouver, although there are key differences between the three cities.

London has an enviable transit system, and Vancouver opened another elevated rail line shortly before its games. Other than Toronto's airport rail link – which will carry only a small number of people – the region will not have any major new transit infrastructure in time for the Pan Am games.

Toronto's current transit infrastructure is handling ever-increasing crowds, regularly setting ridership records. The city's dependence on the subway was laid bare during the shutdown on Tuesday, leaving drivers frustrated by congestion and parking problems and huge crowds of passengers lined up at intersections as 70 shuttle buses struggled to keep pace.

Crews were unable to identify a mysterious substance, described as groundwater mixed with "globules of dark liquid" and smelling of fuel, that leaked into the subway. They pumped grout behind the tunnel wall to form a barrier and cleaned up the site in time for the evening rush.

TTC spokesman Brad Ross said it would be unfair to draw conclusions about the fragility of old infrastructure.

"This is coming from somewhere else," he said, noting that the liquid entered the tunnel through a type of joint designed to expand and contract. "A spill of any kind and it makes its way … to the path of least resistance. And the lowest point in most of the city is the subway."

Provincial opposition transportation critic Michael Harris called the subway shutdown an example of the problems that can erupt. And he derided the governing Liberals for basing their plan for the Pan Am Games on the assumption that people will change their behaviour.

"I think it's wishful thinking," he said. "They say traffic is going to be terrific, I see chaos. If they don't get a 20-per-cent reduction, this whole thing folds up like a cheap suit."

Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca called the plan "robust" and said he believed the traffic-reduction target would be met.

"I'm confident we'll make it happen," he told reporters. "Our goal has always been about balance, getting athletes to their events on time and keeping everyone else across our region moving."

The traffic modelling looked at highways across the Greater Toronto area during what was described as the busiest weekday of the games at the busiest time: between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. on July 21. It found a wide range of potential effects on specific segments of these highways, from under a minute to seven minutes if the traffic reduction targets are met and from under a minute to 20 minutes if they are not.

The briefing did not include traffic impact figures for arterial roads in Toronto.