The Bloor-Dundas intersection in west Toronto is a prime example of a hub where many modes of transportation, including streetcars, can function together. (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)
There’s no use denying it: North Americans are addicted to cars. We’ll curse through morning traffic jams and hop right back into rush hour for the slow drive home. We’ll even sit in the drivethrough and wait for our morning coffee.
The transportation network that stocks our supermarkets with Costa Rican bananas and Chinese garlic is the same system that instigated a post-Second World War building boom, setting the stage for urban sprawl and suburban big-box stores. It’s what makes us so dependent on cars for almost everything we do. But cheap and abundant fuel will run out eventually. And like crash-test dummies, we’re accelerating as we approach the wall: global demand is surging as world production sags, causing prices at the pump to skyrocket.
Our reliance on automobiles also dredges up a plethora of related issues, from air pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions to inactivity and obesity. As demographics continue to skew toward an aging population, how will North Americans get around in isolated suburban enclaves without access to a car?
If that doesn’t worry you, consider the bottom line: road congestion is leading to reduced economic output and accompanying job loss. To commuters, gridlock may be frustrating, but its cost is projected to balloon to $7.8 billion a year by 2031 in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), Canada’s most populous urban centre. With nearly half of Canadians living in the six largest urban regions — the GTA, Montréal, Vancouver, Ottawa-Gatineau, Calgary and Edmonton — this toll will be felt directly by a huge number of Canadians, let alone the indirect effects on rural Canadians from an economy stuck in traffic.
“We’re destroying the environment, and we’re destroying our health,” says transportation researcher Eric Miller, director of the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre. But pointing out the problem, he says, won’t lead to positive change. People will stop listening if all they hear about is the “dystopia of the do-nothing approach. You have to say, ‘Ah, but there is a better way.’”
Canadian cities, thankfully, are exploring that “better way” on many fronts, from bike lanes and greenways to wind-powered electric trains. Whether it’s to save gas money or to save the planet, it doesn’t really matter. Sustainable transportation is the only alternative.
Idea: Toronto’s mobility hubs
Standing near the corner of Bloor and Dundas streets on Toronto’s west side, you can’t help noticing several different getaway strategies. As the subway rumbles beneath your feet, an above-ground streetcar screeches into the transit station. There, passengers can transfer to either the subway or city buses that head northwest through the Junction, a historic neighbourhood that runs parallel to the train tracks which once carried products from the city’s famous meat-packing plants — the origin of the “Hogtown” nickname. From this intersection, you can also cycle beside the tracks on the West Toronto Railpath or even catch a regional GO Transit bus all the way to surrounding cities such as Guelph and Kitchener. It’s no wonder this spot is a testing ground for the city’s “mobility hubs” concept, an effort to enhance critical transit stations in this highly integrated and multi-modal regional transportation network.
With a population that’s projected to grow from nearly six million people to almost nine million by 2031, the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) requires the full slate of transportation modes to move people around efficiently, from regional buses and suburban bike lanes to Toronto’s downtown subway and streetcar system. It’s a fact that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford learned the hard way earlier this year when City Council rebuffed his call for “subways or bust.”
The challenge is to integrate all the different ways of getting around so that they work together efficiently. “You have to think about it as a network,” says U of T’s Eric Miller. “Transit is not a door-to-door service. You have to think about the whole chain in order to get that coverage and connectivity. It’s not going to be done just with buses or just with subways.”
Formerly known as the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority, Metrolinx is the Ontario government agency tasked with creating an efficient and fully integrated transportation network for the GTHA. In The Big Move, an ambitious transportation plan released in 2008, Metrolinx vows to drastically cut car use by 2031. Its goal is to ensure that more than 30 percent of all work commutes will be taken by transit and 20 percent by walking or cycling.
The Big Move identifies 51 mobility hubs in the region, each selected for its strategic location, and suggests ways to make these key transit points function as seamlessly as possible. In its assessment of the Dundas-Bloor hub, for example, Metrolinx recommends the construction of convenient weather-protected access to all transit platforms at the intersection, from subway, streetcars and buses to the GO Transit station. The agency also suggests ways to promote active transportation at the station, such as adding facilities for storing bicycles and making nearby streets both safe and attractive to encourage walking and cycling.
Mobility hubs demand coordinated planning that goes beyond specific forms of transportation, which is why Metrolinx works directly with municipalities to help concentrate development in these areas, increasing population density and ensuring they are vibrant centres where people live, work and play. By taking all factors into account — from efficient transit coordination to land use and social interactions in surrounding neighbourhoods — mobility hubs are a blueprint for sustainable transportation in large cities.
Status Metrolinx is actively engaged in the planning of 10 key mobility hubs throughout the GTHA, including busy Toronto intersections and strategic, outlying regional centres such as Brampton, Markham and Oakville. For the latter, a public workshop was held in early 2012, outlining detailed plans for the mobility hub in Midtown Oakville. Over the next 25 years, Oakville plans to improve transportation linkages around the area’s GO station, including enhanced pedestrian and bicycle routes and new dedicated bus lanes to decrease car use in the area. If Toronto and other key regional transit hubs in the GTHA carry out similar enhancement plans, this could be the most important step toward creating an efficient and sustainable transportation system.