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There were an average of nine million vehicle kilometres travelled on provincial roads in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area per morning in 2011. It’s expected to grow 27 per cent to 11.4 million by 2031.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Frank Quinto wakes each work day at 5:30 a.m. He's "suited and booted" by 6 a.m. and at the VIA station near his Brantford home by 7 a.m. By the time his train arrives at Union Station at 8:40 a.m. he's read his e-mail, prepped for meetings and put on his self-titled professional "game face." He transfers to the TTC for the 10-minute trip to his government office at Yonge and Bloor and arrives at his desk just before 9 a.m.

He leaves at 4:55 p.m. to catch the 5:30 VIA train home. There's no GO train to Brantford, just the option of a bus from the Aldershot station in Burlington. He's back home by 7 p.m.

Four hours a day commuting, five days a week. "Rinse and repeat for nearly seven years," he says. It's a daily grind, but one that lets him keep his downtown-based job while staying in the community in which he grew up, where the average price of a home sold in December was barely $300,000.

Toronto's escalating housing market – up 22.3 per cent in January from a year earlier – is challenging not only buyers, but also the region's infrastructure. Growth is being forced farther afield and lengthy commutes seem increasingly the norm. Where Hamilton used to seem far, communities even farther away are seeing new interest from buyers.

It's no longer unthinkable that masses of workers will be travelling daily from Niagara Falls or Cobourg. And predicting if and when that will happen is the challenge for transportation and city planners trying to calculate how the Golden Horseshoe will grow and move in the coming decades.

The consequences of getting it wrong are evident. Suburbs such as Mississauga and Brampton, which were built around an assumption of car ownership, are now discovering the limits of sprawl and are trying to intensify and improve transit. In Toronto, the TTC is trying to catch up with demand in growth areas such as Liberty Village and the Humber River condo cluster.

"In the end, this is about predicting the future, so I have no misunderstanding that it is 100-per-cent accurate," said Leslie Woo, chief planning officer for the regional transit agency Metrolinx.

"We try to do back-casting, which is, 'here's the vision of where we want to get to, how would we get there, what would need to happen?' You want to look forward, based on what you know from the past. But then you also want to look backwards from where you want to be."

'It's getting really stressful'

The process of analyzing growth and transportation, which never really stops, is going through one of its periodic updates.

A new batch of data is analyzed by the Ministry of Transportation , which gets a huge influx of this information every five years. The ministry is, separately, forecasting out a half-century, trying to figure out possibilities beyond the known trends. In Toronto, the city's official plan is also having its regular review, which happens every five years. And Metrolinx is updating its regional transportation plan.

Adding importance to this work is the expected influx of newcomers. The province projects the population of the GTA will grow 43 per cent by 2041. About 2.8 million new residents would bring the total population to 9.5 million. Recent settlement patterns suggest that the majority of these people will live beyond the city of Toronto, putting pressure on development and transportation infrastructure.

Future growth will largely have to be carried on transit. To help meet the demand, Metrolinx is undergoing a substantial expansion of its commuter network, planning to electrify its rail lines and run trains more often. The agency expects this will help increase annual train boardings from 52 million in 2015 to 127 million in 2029, and to more than 150 million by 2039.

Over a similar period, the number of cars on the road is also expected to increase dramatically. Ministry of Transportation estimates say that, in 2011, there were nine million vehicle kilometres travelled (VKT) on provincial roads system in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area during an average morning peak period. The VKT is expected to grow 27 per cent to 11.4 million by 2031.

The province is mulling two major highway projects. An expansion of Highway 427 moved forward late in January with the selection of a consortium to do the work. And even though the GTA West, a highway proposed to run between Vaughan and Milton, was put on hold late in 2015 because of questions over the logic of building more highways, strong local voices are still pushing for it.

Two essential questions are key to the region's future: Where will people go and how will they get from here to there?

One of the factors complicating transportation planning is that the nature of "there" has changed. With the growth of employment hubs outside the downtown core, the majority of commuters no longer make a daily trip into central Toronto.

Melissa Smith, a technical writer who lives in St. Catharines, is part of this shifting trend. She worked three years in Kitchener-Waterloo, staying there part of each week, but found that hard on her family. For the past 10 years, she has been commuting by car to Hamilton. It takes 45 minutes to get to work and close to an hour to get home, even though she's travelling outside the GTA's most congested areas. "It's just not working any more. It's getting really stressful," said Ms. Smith, who has no efficient transit alternatives. "You see so much road rage … I didn't mind the drive before, but it's getting to the point where people really scare me."

Though commuter horror stories are as much part of Toronto's fabric as complaining about the TTC, it's a way of life that an increasing number of people are choosing – or feeling forced to choose by the market.

The Toronto Real Estate Board reported this week that the price of the average GTA house had climbed to $770,745 in January. And a Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. report last month said that average house prices in the GTA were up 18 per cent in the third quarter of 2016, compared with the same period a year earlier.

The result of such prices, the CMHC says, is that real estate values are being pushed up even far from Toronto.

"Increasing single-family home prices in the GTA are motivating buyers to purchase more affordable homes in nearby [census metropolitan areas], driving up prices in those centres," the report says.

"In particular, historical house price spillovers from the GTA were prevalent in Hamilton, Barrie, and Guelph. Recent house price spillovers appear to have been occurring a bit farther out, especially in St. Catharines-Niagara, driven by GTA low-rise home prices."

Sarah Jerrom-McBride, a professional jazz musician, is among those who have taken advantage of the savings to be had farther afield. She and her husband bought a house in St. Catharines nearly four years ago, and are making mortgage payments that are half what their rent had been in Toronto. But she misses the city, and has to budget two hours when she drives in to perform.

In Guelph, real estate agent Lise Anne Janis said the city is projected to grow 50 per cent by 2041, to 195,000. The municipality has long had a commuter population, but she said there was an increasing number of buyers of first houses.

"It's only in the last few years that we've seen people deliberately looking outside Toronto because they can't afford [it there]. The entry point has gone up," she said, adding that Guelph is also getting well-heeled empty nesters, helping boost prices.

"Two years ago we were boggled that someone would pay $1-million to live in Guelph in a condo. But now we're not blinking at that."

Transit tied to land use

It's often said that the best transportation plan is a good land-use plan. And public awareness is growing of the need to build transit where the demand is greatest, and to direct population growth to places that can be served by transit.

"We're trying to marry the investment in transit with land use," explained Kerri Voumvakis, the director of strategic initiatives and policy analysis in Toronto's planning department.

This goes only so far, though. Politicians may try to direct growth to certain areas, but the private sector will decide whether to build there, and how fast. Factors beyond the control of regional leaders – low interest rates, the perception of Toronto as a safe haven or the relative affordability of gasoline – may change.

"The longer your time frame, probably the more uncertain or the more caveats there would need to be around any kind of numbers or scenarios," said James Perttula, director of transit and transportation planning at the City of Toronto.

"One of the things that is important to think about with the transportation network is that, as we're building it, we need to be thinking about building a system that will respond to changing needs, and provide options."

Threatening to complicate the picture is the provincial election due next year – the Ontario PC Party, leading in the polls, has not disclosed how its transportation or development plans might differ from the Liberals' – and decades of political turnovers to come.

Given all the uncertainties, how do planners do it? Start with the best data you can find, think about where people can logically be expected to be living in the future and then develop a whole lot of possible scenarios.

At the core of this work is the Transportation Tomorrow Survey, done every five years. Although the market is changing rapidly, the data help reveal long-term trends.

"That is the largest household travel survey in North America," said Tija Dirks, director of the transportation planning branch of the provincial Ministry of Transportation. In addition to the survey, the province analyzes cordon counts that track movement between municipalities, plus data from GPS, Google's traffic-tracking software and the Presto transit fare card.

The data are combined with official growth plans to generate a variety of possible outcomes, including low-growth and high-growth possibilities. And planners also look far into the future, trying to imagine the impacts of possible events decades ahead, some of them pretty extreme.

"We do a lot of scenario planning, because obviously we can't completely predict the future," Ms. Dirks said. "Say, for some reason, there's a major population decline. Could be a pandemic, could be some other reason. What [does the] Greater Golden Horseshoe look like that has a much smaller population? Picture something like Detroit."

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