02 January 2008

Urban transport and urban decay

Longtime residents of Toronto will recall the controversy over the abortive Spadina Expressway, as recounted in this article in the past weekend's National Post: Expressways Went Nowhere. I myself lived a stone's throw away from Spadina Avenue in 1978-79 and quickly learned that, had things gone differently a few years earlier, that unique neighbourhood, at the edges of Chinatown with a few Jewish textile vendors left over from earlier days, might not have been there at all. Had it succeeded, more would have come, making Toronto similar to comparably-sized American cities, crisscrossed with expressways bisecting urban neighbourhoods and destroying others. Plans for the Spadina ignited grassroots protest that eventually brought a halt to the project:

In 1971, new Ontario premier William Davis, facing a looming election, stood in the [Ontario] Legislature and announced the expressway would not be completed, declaring: "Cities were built for people and not cars."

[Adam] Vaughan says the decision had huge ramifications for the city. "Look at the American cities that built these huge expressways," he says. "They carved up their downtown neighbourhoods and those neighbourhoods died. The Spadina would've killed half a dozen neighbourhoods in this city -- the Annex, Cabbagetown, the Beaches. All these now vibrant, viable neighbourhoods would've just withered and died."

Queen Street, Toronto
Queen Street, Toronto

Half a century ago my hometown of Chicago began building the first of the great expressways towards the west of the city's centre, initially named the Congress Expressway, subsequently to be called the Eisenhower Expressway. This massive public works project ostensibly followed one of the recommendations of Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago. The construction of the Congress necessitated razing the existing structures in its way, including the Garfield Park elevated train line. Among other things, this led to the death of a very fine electric interurban railway line, the Chicago Aurora & Elgin, that had run over the Garfield Park tracks towards the communities of the Fox River Valley. In short, the city's commitment to the expressways spelled a commitment to the automobile as a primary mode of transportation, at the expense of mass rail transit.

It may not be incidental that, at the very moment American cities were being paved over with expressways, these same cities began their inexorable decline. I have friends who grew up in the Englewood and the once heavily Dutch-American Roseland neighbourhoods on the south side of Chicago. These neighbourhoods are now given over to gangs and crack houses, and are no longer safe to live in. Whether the expressways were the cause is difficult to say, but they certainly did not help, as they made it easier for one-time residents to move to the suburbs and commute, taking their tax base with them. The city was effectively remade for the convenience of the suburbs.

Is Toronto a model of how to do things right? Not entirely. To be sure, when I lived there between 1978 and 1980, I could happily live without a car, relying on the subways, buses and streetcars — and, of course, my own feet — to get me where I wanted to go. Toronto had much less crime than Chicago and still does, though there is more now than when I lived there. Yet I am happy that the Spadina Expressway failed. The city would have been a different place if it had not, and I doubt it would have been for the better.

Still I could wish for more focus on mass transit for the entire Golden Horseshoe region. Especially if one lives outside Toronto in one of the "905" cities, it is next to impossible to get along without a motorized vehicle. Ontario's Liberal government has promised more funds to upgrade mass transit in this urban belt around Lake Ontario. We shall see what comes of this.

Here in Hamilton we have recently observed the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Lincoln Alexander Parkway (the "Linc"), which runs across Hamilton Mountain. Just six weeks ago the Red Hill Valley Parkway opened to connect the Linc to the Queen Elizabeth Way to the east of Hamilton. No neighbourhoods were destroyed to build the Linc, as the right of way was already vacant and apparently reserved for it for quite a number of years beforehand. The Red Hill, by contrast, was built through the Red Hill Creek Valley and thus came under fire from environmentalists. Given our admitted dependence on the automobile in Hamilton, both thoroughfares make sense. Yet I wish alternatives could have been found to enable people to travel without the ubiquitous and polluting internal combustion engine. This would require the expansion of GO train and bus service in and out of Hamilton, as well as more frequent buses from the inaptly-named Hamilton Street Railway. I am under no illusion that such measures would build Jerusalem in Ontario's green and pleasant land. Yet it might make for a more livable urban environment, from which we would all benefit.

By the way, a colleague of mine has alerted me to an apparent urban success story south of the equator: Curitiba. I may come back to the subject and post something more specific about this Brazilian city.

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