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We need to rethink (and shrink) roads, not build more highways

Rethinking roads can free us from climate disaster, gruelling commutes, and cities overrun by private vehicles

Canadian PoliticsEnvironment

Highway 401 West, Toronto, Canada. Taken from 401 and Don Mills Road. Photo by Clement Lo/Flickr.

A highway building spree is afoot in Ontario. The government’s new budget has announced $21 billion over ten years to widen or build new highways, with the 413 alone taking about $10 billion. These projects will only induce traffic, increase emissions, and pave over greenspace. We’ll never solve the climate crisis, accommodate growing populations, or reduce traffic congestion without a plan to tackle car dependency.

Transportation creates 35 percent of emissions in Ontario, most of which comes from personal vehicles. This is because we have designed our cities around cars. Roads are supposed to connect us with our surroundings, but we’ve stretched their usefulness past the point of sanity thanks to a political commitment to cars as default. Work, home, errands, and recreation are built far from each other while cycling and public transit are neglected and underfunded.

Here are several approaches we should undertake simultaneously to make transportation less expensive, lower carbon, and more accessible.

1. Close the gap between people and amenities

Rather than rely on roads to connect people to daily needs, we should do so with proximity. We can greatly reduce the need to drive by making neighbourhoods more amenity-dense. Zoning that limits housing density or relegates work, home, and amenities to separate areas makes driving a de facto requirement. Suburbs need more multi-unit buildings and mixed-use neighbourhoods—groceries, schools, shops, postal banking, movie theatres, and walk-in clinics integrated where people live rather than a few big box stores or malls people have to drive to. Of course people need to travel outside even the most complete neighbourhoods. Frequent bus service is easier to achieve with more people, so building public housing in suburbs and around existing transit hubs is crucial.

The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) is finally recognizing the need for density, with Hamilton, Burlington, Oakville, and Ajax all recently voting against further urban expansion. Basically all new development in major Canadian cities over the last two decades has been low-amenity sprawl so there is plenty of existing space we can infill with useful services and housing. But there is a wrong way to densify; building luxury condos with fancy dining on the ground floor is not what we need.

Neighbourhood planning should be guided by residents themselves with a focus on reclaiming space from cars, capital, and developers. Imagine taking several parking lots throughout a neighbourhood and building multi-level cooperative housing units on them, with the ground floor reserved for a grocery store, repair shop, and lending library open to anyone in the vicinity. Community owned stores would keep the focus on local needs, quality, and affordability rather than profit.

2. Don’t widen roads, redesign them

Roads are not neutral; their design determines what modes are convenient or difficult to use. If city and provincial planners want to curb congestion and emissions, they should convert existing road lanes into dedicated bus and bike lanes. A 2001 study found that when road space for cars was reduced, traffic actually decreased on both the target street and surrounding area. People adapt their travel based on the modes available and when buses and bikes have a dedicated lane, separated with some form of physical barrier, they become viable alternatives to driving.

This is catching on, slowly, here at home. Toronto city council voted to reduce Yonge Street from four car lanes to two to make more space for bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and greenery, emulating similar projects in Paris and Vancouver. Cities and provinces should reassess all roads and highways with four or more lanes, in collaboration with cyclists, transit riders, and residents, to evaluate which would benefit from lane conversion.

3. Restrict where cars can go

Cars need a lot of space—about one third of our cities to be exact. We should work to reclaim and democratize it. After all, public power is only possible with public space, and meaningful reconciliation and Land Back means Indigenous communities are able to use and reshape the spaces stolen from them. Community gardens, social housing, learning and sharing spaces, used goods markets, recreation areas—this is all possible if we remake our spaces without cars.

This reimagining is already underway in some major cities. Wellington, New Zealand banned cars from an entire thoroughfare and remade the space for pedestrians, cyclists, and two bus lanes. In 2005, Seoul tore down its congested Cheonggyecheon expressway and converted it into a recreation area. Barcelona has slated 21 streets for complete conversion into pedestrian greenspace as part of its ongoing project to create “superblocks,” neighbourhood grids which cars can only move within, not through.

Paris and Glasgow recently adopted plans to ban through traffic from their downtowns. The entire city centre of Ljubljana, Slovenia has been nearly car free since 2007. Exceptions are made for those with mobility issues who need to drive, so accessibility is not compromised but a substantial reduction in pollution and pedestrian fatalities are observed. Of course, none of these places flipped a switch or had mayors wake up one day deciding to radically shift directions. It took years of community organizing, movement building, and mobilization—but it began with an understanding of the possible.

4. Build safety into highway design

Wildlife corridors over and under busy highways have been used to great effect in places like Banff and Washington state to limit the amount of vehicle collisions with animals—a figure that stands at 14,000 per year in Ontario alone. However, driving would likely remain a dangerous game with 2,000 deaths and 130,000 injuries nationally (9,000 ‘serious’) reported by Statistics Canada in 2019.

The current approach to traffic safety, police enforcement, is a very expensive way to not actually prevent road accidents. Rather than eternally police traffic, putting more marginalized people in contact with cops, it would be best to simply have fewer cars. A highway with lanes dedicated for public intercity buses could move more people, faster, with a much lower risk of collisions while reducing overall traffic.

Rethinking roads can free us from climate disaster, gruelling commutes, and cities overrun by cars. We must jettison highways, wider roads, and parking complexes from our political priorities and radically invest in amenity-dense neighbourhoods, public transit, and safe cities. This strategy for a low carbon, accessible, and affordable future must be highlighted during Ontario’s June election.

Nick Grover is a public transit advocate who organizes with Free Transit Ottawa and the Keep Transit Moving coalition. He currently works for a national NGO in Ottawa.


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