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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

STRAPHANGER: The Toronto tragedy


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This week, Spacing presents five excerpts from Straphanger, the new book by Montreal-based author Taras Grescoe. The book examines the success stories, challenges, and future hurdles of 14 transit systems from across the world, including Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.


TODAY: Toronto (last excerpt)

I’d always planned to end up in Toronto. After all, it was the city where I started.

I was born at the old Women’s College Hospital, near Queen’s Park station on the Yonge-University line, in 1966. At the time, my parents were renting a top-floor flat in a house on Lytton Boulevard, a short stroller’s push from Yonge Street; an auspicious first address for a newborn, it turned out, as it had belonged to one of the inventors of Pablum (his widow spoon-fed me the vitamin-rich baby mush, which may explain why I never developed rickets). When I was only four years old, my parents joined the exodus to suburbia, and we moved to a cookie-cutter bungalow on a curvy street in Burlington, twenty-five miles west along the shore of Lake Ontario from Union Station.

I used to wonder if this early exile from the city was the foundational trauma that led to my lifelong bias against subdivisions, but my Kodachrome-hued memories of Riverside Drive—of netting crayfish in the nearby creek, of walking to Frontenac Elementary School, and of pretending I was Bobby Orr in street hockey games—are for the most part fond, and at worst emotionally neutral. My parents tell me they bought the house as a short-term investment, but if they were hoping the suburbs would be a healthier setting than the city, they seriously misjudged Southern Ontario. Less than a mile from our carport were the multimillion-gallon storage tanks of the Oakville refinery, where British Petroleum was busy making jet fuel, and beyond a tiny stand of oaks known as Sherwood Forest Park lay the Queen Elizabeth Way—six lanes of rushing traffic that, in the days before emissions controls, must have created a formidable cancer corridor of leaded gas exhaust. My parents lasted two years in Burlington, before giving up on the land of loops-and-lollipops and bundling my sister and me onto a westbound train.

At a time when downtowns across North America were hollowing out, there was nothing exceptional about my parents’ move to the outer suburbs. But it turns out that what made the Toronto area unique in the waning years of the postwar baby boom was the way it was bucking the continent-wide trend toward city-sapping suburbanization. Toronto was the city that Jane Jacobs and her family, despairing of the future in Vietnam-era America, had chosen over New York, settling in the Annex, just one of many inner-city neighborhoods that have never given up their vitality. The city’s freeway revolt, led by University of Toronto professors and supported by Jacobs, put the kibosh on the Spadina Expressway, which was part of a larger plan to straitjacket the entire downtown with urban freeways. (The uprising came too late to spare the city the elevated Gardiner Expressway, a leprous eyesore that continues to sever Toronto from its waterfront.) While other cities were putting up district-killing high-rise concrete slabs, Torontonians were renovating old row houses in the central city. And thanks to a decades-long tradition of regional planning and governance, metropolitan Toronto still sprawls half as much as North American cities with comparable populations.

For much of the twentieth century, Toronto was also known as a model of efficient urban transit. The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), which until the ’70s required no government subsidies at all, was generally considered a triumph for public ownership. Over half of the city’s workers still get downtown by commuter rail, streetcar, bus, or subway, and transport scholars continue to study the way the TTC extends the reach of its small but efficient two-line subway by using a brilliantly integrated network of feeder buses. While cities like Philadelphia may have potential for revival, Toronto has never questioned its urban birthright: the “City that Works,” as impressed visitors used to call it, has long been seen as a Mecca for urbanists, and a shining example of rational transportation planning.

Which is why, when I visit the city of my birth these days, I spend a lot of time shaking my head in sad wonder. In just over a decade, Toronto has lost its lead as a global model for well-planned regional growth, and the TTC is on its way to becoming a case study in how to quickly squander a hard-won legacy of decent transit. Vancouver, meanwhile, has easily outdistanced Toronto as the continent’s leading example of progressive transport planning, and even sprawling Calgary can now lay claim to more far-sighted municipal leadership.

When I planned this voyage, Toronto was going to be part of my itinerary; I figured Canada’s biggest city still had something to teach North America’s most mobility-challenged metropolises about smart urbanism. As my journey draws to an end, however, it is becoming clear that its real claim to fame is as a cautionary tale for other cities. In Toronto, the apposite question has lately become: How did a city that used to work so well end up so broken?

Excerpt taken from Straphanger © 2012 by Taras Grescoe.  Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

photo & model by Chris McVeigh