The second half of the 20th century seems long ago but its legacy on urban design has continued to affect millions of citizens in North America. The beginning of the post-war era represented the point in history when our cities drastically began to change, paving the road for a whole new method of transportation and lifestyle. Urban centres began to expand outwards due to the wide availability of land which allowed for the construction of the modern cookie-cutter concept of suburban living. Endless rows of detached homes were springing up left and right across Canada and the US, supported by the automobile industry that made it affordable for millions of families to own a vehicle.
The affordability of automobiles supported the expansion of low-density housing. This propelled the booming economy of private transportation, which continues to thrive today as it allows for personal freedom and the ability to reach our desired destinations. As the decades went by, the number of cars steadily climbed both on roads and inside garages. Commuting from A to B has become a job for private vehicles, especially for those living outside city centres. The economy itself depends on people being able to get in their car and reach their workplace, where an entire automobile network has been built to accommodate the ever-increasing traffic volumes that have been worsening in recent times.
Today, six and eight lane roadways are jammed not only at rush hour but at any time throughout the day, which highlights the limits of urban design. Roads continue to be widened to host more cars, which actually worsens the situation. Despite smart traffic lights and patchy light-rail solutions –something Toronto knows well– we still cannot tame the car culture. This shows that technology cannot be depended upon to solve this automobile problem; we must solve it ourselves.
Being the fourth largest city in North America with over 2.8 million people, Toronto has realized too late that traffic is more than just a problem: it is a phenomenon that has drastically limited the potential of future planning for not only cars, but people as well. The city has been designed for the ease of cars to take us where we need to go, with the other option being to rely on the efficiency of public transit.
Low-density suburban neighbourhoods maintain the network of sprawl that can exclusively be accessed by mostly private automobiles. Each morning and evening, major routes like Highway 400, 401, and the DVP are stagnated with steel boxes coming in and out from suburbia, devoting at least two hours a day to reach their workplace. Toronto’s solution to its car dependence is to create larger roads to fit more cars, despite the studies that show this increases traffic instead of alleviating it.
Automobiles in city centres pose a risk to pedestrians, especially in high volume areas because there aren’t restricted traffic areas, something European cities have long enacted to maintain their citizens’ safety and reduce pollution. This also allows people to explore their neighbourhoods and to experience a whole different relationship with the built environment.
The streets of Toronto in high-density areas are a challenge to shift from their original grid-system design shaped around cars’ needs instead of people’s; this increases travel times because there isn’t always a direct path to our destinations. Toronto also does not have a dedicated pedestrian zone to limit traffic and poor air quality, and straight wide roads are an invitation for drivers to speed. This latter problem can also be seen in any other large city in Canada or the US suffering the same conditions, which highlights a much bigger complication.
However, there is also another issue: distances across this city are greater to cover as speed limits increase travel times, meaning it might take hours to go from one end to the other. This and other problems that have been stacking up for years resulted in a patchy and inefficient layout of the subway system and a weak urban design foresight. The Toronto Transit Commission –the city’s public transportation company– is not only behind in having an efficient underground network that has the feasible power to transport the growing number of commuters, but it is also unsuccessful in alleviating traffic on roads because its own buses do not have a dedicated travelling lane.
The first step for improved urban design is to begin by acknowledging the mistakes that have been made and examining what went wrong to avoid repetition in the future. A secondary step is to design a city core that can contain a reference hub for people to converge, much like a public square where many roads join all together. This would ideally be a place off limits for traffic and tailored around pedestrians so that it can become a reference point for the city and a congregation space, one where local business can thrive. Furthermore, in order to alleviate traffic on the roads, we should look into relying more on public transportation rather than our own cars to reach our destinations; however, this can only happen if a more efficient subway line with wheel transportation is constructed. Building a new underground system is certainly very expensive, but it is a long-term investment that would contribute to a more successful future, something even less prosperous and much more bureaucratic nations managed to understand decades ago.
By Carlo Ienna
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.