Personal rapid transit

The Gardiner Expressway was originally seen as Toronto's first step towards a modern North American city. Nowadays, the elevated highway is considered a mental and physical barrier to the city's greatest natural landmark, Lake Ontario. For the last two decades there has been no shortage of proposals looking to re-invent the Gardiner. The most popular ideas are to bury it deep in the ground like they are doing in Boston (affectionately known as The Big Dig), or to just tear the damn thing down.

But tearing down the highway doesn't deal with the reality of the 200,000 daily trips made by car along the Gardiner, or the fact that the expressway is operating at six times its capacity. A project like the Big Dig would cost us billions of dollars and nearly a decade of traffic headaches.

Enter Chloe Li, a masters student in architecture at the University of Waterloo. Her Personal Rapid Transit proposal uses the current infrastructure of the Gardiner and envisions a new waterfont commute. In order to accommodate the influx of residential development along the waterfront, and to alleviate congestion and pollution in the downtown core, a ten-year plan with three phases is envisioned. First, a road toll would be introduced along the Gardiner, followed by a central business district parking levy, and finally a congestion charge at various time intervals during the day. The funds generated would go towards repurposing the highway into a network of small, fast-moving vehicles called T-Pods.

The Gardiner's decking would be removed to expose the concrete structure of girders and piers, and replaced with strands of magnetic levitation tracks. The current ramps, Li explains, would be removed because they are the true psychological barriers — pedestrians and cyclists are very hesitant to use sidewalks and pathways that intersect with on- or off-ramps. Each T-Pod, which can carry up to five passengers, would stop at stations built aboveground or into new buildings. But unlike our current subway, you could program your T-Pod to skip past all the stations until your final destination. Think of it as carpooling in the age of Bladerunner.

Three other advantages to Li's proposal are the cost to build the network, the flexibility of its insertion, and the transit integration nodes. An elevated light-rapid-transit network of similar length would cost the city $60 million a kilometre; Li estimates her project would cost less than $10 million a kilometre to implement. Also built into the network is an enclosed tube to accomodate cyclists, which is very similar to the Velo-City vision of Chris Hardwicke (see Spacing spring/summer 2005).

Fantastical ideas about transit are not always far-fetched. Li points to a similar project already underway, on a much smaller level, at London's Heathrow Airport.

Toronto had the vision to build the Gardiner — but do we have the smarts to reinvent it to work for all of us?