LORINC: Tearing down Gardiner East is all in the numbers


Does the melodrama over the projected two- to ten-minute delay that may occur due to the removal of the lower portion of the Gardiner resemble a farce that’s played out in Toronto before?

Absolutely. We went through this whole charade about a decade ago, on St. Clair West, when the Toronto Transit Commission released a report projecting that the travel times along the corridor would fall by a whopping two minutes if the city built a dedicated right-of-way for the 512 car.

Opponents seized on that number to fulminate against the project: Why go to the enormous expense and disruption for a mere 120-second savings? they demanded. It seemed absurd.

Today, I defy anyone — pro or con the right-of-way — to locate an individual who can accurately report the average delta in trip duration compared to their pre-ROW streetcar commutes. Travel times are subject to multiple and constantly changing variables: weather, accidents, construction, misplaced keys, short-cuts, whether your kid is acting up that morning, etc.

This flux, moreover, exists both for transit users and drivers. Commute times, for individuals, fall in a broad band. The reality — unless your workplace is at the end of the block or on the dining room table — is that your trip can vary in duration by as much as 100%. A delay of a few minutes is a rounding error, nothing more.

The scientists who make these elaborate simulations — all of which are built with a confection of historical sample data, macro demographic and economic estimates that reach far into the future, and complex algorithms — know this. And yet we — by which I mean city officials, politicians and a gullible, math-phobic public — insist on treating these super-precise time projections as facts, the logical consequences of which will be baked into our infrastructure (and public finances) for generations to come.

But they are not facts. They are guesses, and should be handled with extreme caution.

Unfortunately, we do just the opposite. Indeed, there’s much in our public discourse to reinforce our belief in travel time predictions and estimates. The media loves to report on city-by-city commute time rankings, and the most recent of these have given Greater Toronto dubious bragging rights as one of the most molten cities in the industrialized world.

Civic Action, in a well-intentioned but misleading gesture, sought to whip up support for more transit investment with the “Your 32” campaign, which encouraged commuters to ask what they’d do with the extra half hour generated, at some indeterminate point in the future, by more investment in the GTA transit network. Is there was any way of doing a meaningful before-and-after comparison over periods that can extend for decades, during which lives, working conditions, travel patterns and the city’s form are constantly shifting? Nope.

The models, and the people who create them, try their best to factor in the inherent dynamism of the problem – the fact that transportation systems consist of a limitless number of moving parts, random events and minute interactions – but the reality is that they simply can’t account for what Donald Rumsfeld so memorably termed the “unknown unknowns.”

Case in point: Uber. Five years ago, it was just a $50 German word beloved of philosophy majors. Today, I’d venture to say that Uber — and the companies that will imitate it — is poised to radically change the way we move around cities; these entrepreneurs have yanked the ideal of wide-spread car-sharing from the middle-distance horizon into the here and now. And what about the next Uber, and the one after that? Or what about the fact that so many young people today are opting not to learn to drive or own cars? Can those supposed two to ten minute delays account for future innovation, unexpected mass changes in habit or political course corrections? Of course not.

Prognostications about urban development can be equally dodgy. In the 1980s, when the former Metro Council adopted its mass transit strategy, Network 2011, the prevailing assumption was that office/employment uses were fleeing the downtown. Newspapers and business magazines were filled with breathless anecdotes about this or that company re-locating from the core to the suburbs.

Consequently, politicians of that era adopted transportation infrastructure decisions based on the expectation that the trend would continue indefinitely. Thirty years later, we know those predictions didn’t come to pass. We built it, they didn’t come. Indeed, the core is now by far the most robust employment district in the GTA, followed by mid-town. But the distant echoes of Network 2011, and the faulty policy assumptions which informed big plans, continue to drive infrastructure investment.

Critics of this line of reasoning may say, “Wait, that was 30 years ago, things change.” But proposals like the so-called “hybrid” version of the Gardiner East will be with us 30, 60 or a 100 years hence, just as the current tail of the Gardiner East stands as a testament to an earlier generation of flawed transportation planning. We can plausibly estimate the cost to keep the thing from falling down in perpetuity. But the notion that anyone can predict, decades in advance, the way people will travel — and do so to such fine tolerances — is at best false and at worst highly misleading.

Herein lies the mischief in the staff report heading toward a council like a runaway train (it will be debated and presumably approved at the public works and infrastructure committee on Wednesday). Council, according to the report, can make a choice between two options: “Remove [the Gardiner east of Jarvis], on the basis of greater emphasis on the EA urban design, environment and economics study lenses; or Hybrid, on the basis of greater emphasis on the EA transportation and infrastructure study lens.”

It’s a false dichotomy, because the case for the (far more costly) hybrid option is built on a marshy foundation of statistically insignificant guesses about  improvements in travel times compared to the “remove” option.

Council, of course, can’t make a decision in an analytical vacuum (although god knows it happens often enough). In this case, however, the analysis is hidden in plain view: more than half a century of urban design and planning experience – as opposed to prediction – has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that highways and vibrant downtowns simply do not mix.

In a surprising spasm of self-awareness, council under David Miller drove a stake through the heart of Metro’s last remaining downtown highway project – the Front Street Extension. Apparently, and ironically, we have since unlearned those lessons, even as a growing number of forward-looking international cities – including, of all places, Houston, which is now debating the removal of an extended elevated highway – have re-discovered why Jane Jacobs is still right, so many years later.

So let’s be perfectly clear about what confronts council in the next few weeks. It’s not, as the staff report claims, a matter of selecting between comparably compelling options, each with strengths and weaknesses. Rather, the remove/hybrid vote is a stark choice between certainty and guesswork, successful urban planning and failed transportation planning, the city’s future and the city’s past. The Gardiner vote is about many things, but a tiny, and ultimately fictitious, slice of time saved from door to desk isn’t one of them.

photo by Ashton Pal



  1. John’s article hits home for me, a very analytical career consumer marketer (and former TTC CMO) who believes GTA Transportation decision makers have utterly (and deliberately) failed to educate the public on the accuracy of their transportation metrics such as trip times, public transit rides and the algorithms, estimates, models, samples & projections behind them—that the general public takes as the gospel truth, without realizing the huge margin of error (standard deviation) embedded in them.

    “And yet we — by which I mean city officials, politicians and a gullible, math-phobic public — insist on treating these super-precise time projections as fact…”

    This lack of analytic rigour has caused common sense to be ignored, planning & operational mistakes to be repeated by each new generation of both political & expert staff decision-makers who fail to learn history’s past mistakes. It’s replaced by all sorts of facile spin, “strategic communications” that are debunked with the most cursory of analytic examination—but are tolerated as long as they convince the general public to support the desired political outcomes. John writes:

    “Civic Action, in a well-intentioned but misleading gesture, sought to whip up support for more transit investment with the “Your 32” campaign…”

    Why is it misleading? Well, the reason the GTA has congestion has very little to do with the amount of public transit ridership, but is correlated to population & car growth on static roads. The spin is that if only we invested more money in public transit traffic congestion & gridlock would magically disappear. Well, lets look at the actual TTC/GO rides over 10 years: 2003/2013: TTC rides increased ~29% and GO rides ~47%. So according the Civic Action’s “Your 32…” this should translate into less congestion & gridlock, lower travel/commute times, right? Wrong! GTA congestion/gridlock/commute times have gotten much worse (reliable statistics are hard to quote due to different definitions & sampling methodologies in US/Cda & between provinces/cities, witness the Toronto RBOT backtracking from its original GTA 80 minutes commute claim), not due to a lack of public transit capacity, but, the immigration of ~100,000 ppl into the GTA every year, and the corresponding increase in car trips overwhelming relatively static road capacity.

    Similarly Metrolinx spins strategic communications (TV ads) extolling how UPExpress, GOTransit & their other RT projects will reduce congestion… oh, really? With the TTC accounting for ~80% of GTA public transit trips (up to 1.9M trips/workday) ALL the TTC only accounts for 15% of the GTA’s ~13M daily trips—so it’s very unlikely that GO’s 65.5M 2014 rides had any meaningful impact on GTA congestion (took cars off the road) or that UPExpress’s projected ~5,000 daily rides (0.038% of GTA daily trips) will measurably reduce congestion is patently absurd, analytically bankrupt.

  2. John doesn’t come out and say this directly, but I will: the uncertainty in travel time estimates that are published in reports like these are mistaken for certainty BY DESIGN FOR POLITICAL PURPOSES. Maybe it seems too obvious to state. Maybe he’s experiencing a condition where reporting on the obviously intentional misunderstanding of city-sourced reports is tiresome (I call it Ford fatigue syndrome, of which I am a fellow sufferer).

    But it should still be loudly stated (see my all-caps above) that the councillors in favour of keeping the Gardiner up are not making a mistake; they’re deliberately choosing to ignore any uncertainty in travel time estimates in their rhetoric because doing so is the basis for a flimsy opposing argument which is conveniently in their own best political interests. Make no mistake: this is all about a handful of councillors trying to stay elected, rather than the best interests of the city. It’s the flipside of De Baeremaeker’s subway flip-flop.

    This issue of evidence-based policy versus politically-motivated policy is often at play in Toronto council. The removal of the Jarvis street bike lanes was one simple instance. Ford nation wanted to remove the lanes despite no evidence that it would make a difference in travel times. The city’s study showed that there was no difference in travel times for cars, except for northbound in evening rush hour (and the same report stated that changing the left turn light policy at a couple of intersections would make the estimated travel time difference vanish). Yet it’s now gone. More complicated examples include the absurd debate over the right mode of transit for the SRT replacement, and Sheppard line extension. This is just the latest clash.

  3. I agree. Lorinc is mostly on point 100% of the time. I can dig it.
    The only thing I keep struggling with is the St. Clair right of way project. Maybe it’s still too soon to judge, but as a pedestrian, cyclist, transit user, motorist, and also neighbourhood resident, I still don’t see the improvement in convenience, transit times and life quality that this project was supposed to bring. I know this article isn’t about that, but councillors and researchers don’t always convert their good intentions into an urban utopia. The Gardiner obviously isn’t perfect, but chances are the future solution won’t be either. Strive for perfection and you’ll always be a little disappointed.
    For me, I miss the wide street where streetcars, cars, buses, cyclists, and people were allowed to share the space, sometimes crashing into each other, but there was something nice about St. Clair that I feel has been lost in this new era of controlled priority.

  4. Francesco —

    I don’t want this to get off topic either, so I’ll address this comment quickly.

    “The only thing I keep struggling with is the St. Clair right of way project. Maybe it’s still too soon to judge, but as a pedestrian, cyclist, transit user, motorist, and also neighbourhood resident, I still don’t see the improvement in convenience, transit times and life quality that this project was supposed to bring. ”
    • Pedestrian: St Clair is way better for walking, sitting, etc. Better pavement and urban design. That is clear as day from what it was before
    • Cyclist: Hasn’t improved for cyclists. They get the shaft from this, though the city should’ve done what they do in Vancouver and build/promote cycle ways on parallel streets like Benson.
    • Transit User: You mustn’t have used the streetcar pre-ROW, because it is much quicker and predictable. I find it sooo much better. I used the Bathurst stop and would wait for 5 cars to pass to get on in the morning. No more of that.
    • Motorist: It wasn’t meant to help them. There is enough space for cars.
    • Resident: The area is much improved with more things on offer from. More shops, more options, more eyes on the street. Also, house values are way up and a big part of that is being close to the ROW.

  5. Francesco: When Mitch Stambler Mgr Service Planning then (Chief Strategy Officer now) was challenged on 2-minute improvement in St. Clair trip times with dedicated RoW, he defended it as it was meant NOT to improve travel times significantly, but, to improve reliability significantly.
    I’d have to say from Steve Munro’s timechart audits of quality of St. Clair service inconsistency (esp. Sunday off-peak) that quality of service, its reliability requires more than a dedicated RoW to achieve it.

  6. I’m afraid this just seems like railing against the wind. I agree 100% with John’s premise, but why even bother? We know how decisions get made and we know the political landscape that requires this sort of fictional ‘fact-based evidence’ to support a decision that has already been made by many of our elected representatives.
    I have no idea how council is going to go on this, but here’s what I’m suggesting to them:
    “I would urge all the committee members, both today and in a short time when this matter comes before City Council, to think of what the context will be in 2075 – what will our city look like at that time, how will residents be moving about our city and what duties will our legacy infrastructure be asked to perform.”
    It’s a pretty easy decision if you do that.

  7. Hi, John,

    with due respect, I do not think the choice is as clear cut as you make it to be. I frequent that area (mostly as a cyclist, but occasionally as driver and as pedestrian as well). In my experience, while aesthetically the elevated freeway is rather ugly, practically I have far more problems with Lakeshore than with the freeway. I have a hard time to imagine my experience would improve if the freeway is replaced with an even wider, more jammed Lakeshore. Combine it with the fact that the freeway is adjacent to the raised railway tracks which will always be there, I has serious doubt about the benefit of tearing down the freeway. In terms of traffic time estimate, I agree with you that the numbers maybe as valid as any number pulled out of thin air. That said, given the level of current and future residential and business development in that area, I’d expect the traffic volume to be substantially higher than current level once the residents and businesses move it. All said, I disagree with your sentiment that this is a stark choice between certainty and guesswork. I see no certainty in either option.

  8. Yu is completely right – a much wider Lakeshore (55m ROW with no improvements for cyclists) will be a much greater impediment to the waterfront than an elevated expressway will. Think of the volume of traffic that will be at grade! Imagine trying to cross it – crossing University is hard enough as it is and this new Lakeshore will have measurably more traffic (not to mention, it’ll be even wider and harder to cross).

    Your assertions about the numbers coming from thin air are correct John but this decision isn’t nearly as clear-cut as you make it out to be.

  9. The above commenters seem to think that a dark and poorly design underpass is better than an open-air road? I cross university avenue each day and its not a bother and I never think of avoiding it. I do think that way with underpasses.

    There is ample ample ample proof that the removal of an elevated highway always improve the urban design.

    But, the main argument in this piece is that there is no financial or traffic argument to keeping it up. That trumps everything.

  10. @JFS_II, @YU: unfortunately, the mobility of cyclists is not a priority in making this decision; cost and benefits to the city, and to the potential for re-development of the area are paramount. Though I don’t think it will be impassable, there are over-passes on the at-grade Gardiner in the west of the city, which I haven’t found to be difficult to navigate on my bike.

    I also wish you both would not use the phrase “out of thin air”. I don’t think @JohnLorinc is suggesting they are coming from thin air. Quite the opposite. They are the results of a lot of though and hard work by qualified engineers, programmers and planners. To suggest they are out of thin air disregards the work put into producing them, which is the best information we have when trying to make this decision. We can’t perform an experiment and then change our minds if it doesn’t work out; we’ve got one chance to make a decision, so we have to resort to modeling. John’s point is that they are estimates, with the amount of uncertainty *quantified in the report*. He’s appealing to councillors not to just ignore this uncertainty and argue “remove = longer travel times, therefore do not remove”.

    I’m yet to see any compelling evidence showing Hybrid is better than Remove. While Remove isn’t certainly better, the reports as I read them argue more convincingly that Remove is a better option (less $$, better for development).

    I also am not comfortable that Tory and co aren’t being very up front with how much Smart Track depends on Hybrid for TIF, and how much influence the real estate developers that own the Unilever site have on a city decision of this magnitude (c.f http://metronews.ca/voices/torys-toronto/1366413/gardiner-east-faq-making-sense-of-another-frustrating-city-hall-debate/)

  11. “I’m yet to see any compelling evidence showing Hybrid is better than Remove. While Remove isn’t certainly better, the reports as I read them argue more convincingly that Remove is a better option (less $$, better for development).”

    Ugh. This should read “While Remove is *likely* to be slower in some circumstances, …”

  12. Great story.

    Disagree about the Front Street Extension though. Liberty Village is jammed that it is being planned again under a new name.

    Hated St. Clair and rarely drove it before. Love it now and drive it. Love shopping at all the new stores.

  13. Lots of thoughtful comments here I must say. How come tunnel is never mentioned anymore – even by the fringe? I go to Boston frequently and the parks above the tunnel are all fabulous and open up neighbourhoods rather than block them off. I guess I’m the last supporter of tunnel in the city. Too bad.

  14. @Lula,

    I certainly agree that open air crossing is better than under pass, but if the open air crossing has to be much wider and more congested, the benefits are diminished. When you take into account the under pass (cross the rail track) you will have to go through anyway, the benefits are now significantly diminished.

    @Lee Zamparo

    I understand cyclists is not the main consideration here, and do not expect it to be. My argument is that the urban form benefit is not as clear cut as John made it to be, especially considering the rail track underpath that you cannot take away. If you get creative and make rail track underpath attractive, why cannot you apply the same strategy and make freeway underpath useful and attractive space? I am actually hoping that in the hybrid approach we can find ways to make creative use of the space under the freeway.

    Also my understanding is that hybrid approach would allow comparable development of the site as the remove option. True, some of the buildings will have to go up next to the elevated highway, but that has not prevented the development around the west section. So at the end of the day, the trade off is mainly $$$ vs. travel time.

    That brings us back to the travel time estimate. Fair enough, the number is the result of diligent work by qualified engineers, programers, and so on. But that can be said for both the 2 minutes and the 10 minutes estimate, which one do we trust? John seemed to say neither can be really trusted given the complexity and fluidity of the situation, which I agree. John argued that the removal option wins over with certainty because of the urban form benefit; my argument was that the urban form benefit was also questionable, and the development of the area suggests larger impact on travel time than the low ball estimate, hence it is far from certain which option is superior.

  15. @Lula – Nobody is vouching for a dark and poorly designed underpass. The Hybrid option would have a very different design from the current gardiner (a single pedestal as opposed to a wide and low series of pillars). There’s work to be done, for sure – but you can’t write it off just because you’re coming to it with the preconceived idea that it’ll be exactly the same as the current road. A bit of creative consideration and it won’t be dark or depressing at all.

    The revised and wider Lakeshore would be handling 5-6x the traffic that university currently handles, so it’s not going to function at all similarly. University was only brought up as a reference point – the reality is that Lakeshore will be much wider and be handling a much larger amount of traffic (than University).

    Maybe thin air is the wrong term, but John himself states “the notion that anyone can predict, decades in advance, the way people will travel — and do so to such fine tolerances — is at best false and at worst highly misleading.”

  16. The standard presentation is that the choice is between an idyllic waterfront and a 10 minute commute time savings. Turns out neither half of this equation is valid.

    As others, and John Van Nostrand, have pointed out, there will remain an elevated railway and wide expanse of traffic to cross under the remove scenario. As this article wisely points out, the drive time savings are elusive as well.

    As such, the whole dichotomy of the current argument is misplaced and the decision should be reasoned on a different set of considerations. Perhaps long term costs are the controlling factor?

    Also, as an aside, in tokyo they have elevated rail tracks everywhere and they make the city work quite nicely around it. I wonder if this elevated infrastructure thing is primarily a NA concern.

  17. Taking down the Gardiner will have a negative impact on the flow of traffic on the Don Valley Parkway and around the downtown core. Every time there are problems on the Gardiner, there is a negative impact on the other roads. Traffic was at a standstill when the Gardiner was closed for a day, starting at 9 am on a Saturday morning. Pretty much everything south of Bloor was jammed most of the day. You may not care if you are close enough to cycle to work, but for those of us who live far from a subway, our commutes take well over an hour each way by TTC, and half of that by car. We need a solution that works for all of us, not just the 200,000 in the downtown core.

  18. I watched John on The Agenda. I think John and his co-panelists should have given full disclosure: do they commute, from where to where, how and how long does it take?
    To dismiss closing a portion of a six lane highway as just a km or two illustrates a certain insularity which 90% of the population does not benefit from. Perhaps they should instead advocate for city council term limits, which would allow for a better representation of the needs of the city. Like John Tory said, build a stop a year and this issue would be a non-issue. Thirty lost years…

  19. @jpblanchard: Fair enough. I am self-employed so my travel patterns and modes vary. Many days I work both at home or at local coffee shops so I walk/ride. Other times I travel downtown by transit or drive to interviews in the suburbs or outside the city. This week, for example, I had to drive to Waterloo during morning rush hour, and hit the reverse commute out to Mississauga.

  20. Good article except that the comparison to St. Clair does a disservice to the other excellent and compelling reasons for East Gardiner tear-down. I need not repeat them – Paul Bedford et. al. have already articulated them in print, public forums and at the Public Works Committee. St. Clair is not the success it was promised to be. Cyclists are completely shut out, motorists (rightly or wrongly) avoid it as a destination, and it takes up a huge chunk of empty real estate for much of the day and night. Plus, it, like the EG, contains a mass of elevated unconfigurable concrete for no purpose other than pass-through.

    I am hoping not only for a conversion of the EG to a boulevard, but also lessons learned from the mistakes of St. Clair.

Comments are closed.