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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

GREENBERG: Crumbling Gardiner offers Toronto an opportunity

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The truth has now come out, albeit grudgingly.

We have just learned via a Freedom of Information request by the Toronto Star that notwithstanding months of misleading reassurances to the effect that the “falling concrete” problem was superficial, nearly half of the elevated portion of the Gardiner Expressway is becoming structurally unstable and those entire portions will have to be fully rebuilt.

City staff has now asked for $505 million to rip the elevated structure down to the steel girder frame with potentially huge implications for movement in the downtown over many years. The fact that this crucial information was withheld — even from the councillors supposedly in charge of managing this operation — is in itself damning. It suggests a situation so serious that people simply found it too hot to handle and did not know how to face up to consequences.

Now that the facts are known, this deterioration of the Gardiner now poses an acute dilemma for the City. It comes a time when our city (like all cities in North America) is struggling to make the unavoidable shift from over-dependence on the private automobile to a more sustainable range of mobility options. And even if we wanted to, it is not clear, or even feasible, to keep up the Gardiner indefinitely in its present form, without incurring a financial burden and years of disruption far greater than is being reluctantly conceded. Worse still, even if that total reconstruction were done step by painful step, it would likely soak up a huge part of the scarce funds that might be put to making the shift with little or no net gain in improved mobility.

This problem merits a thoughtful consideration of options, even radical ones that challenge conventional wisdom, such as planning for a take down. While we have approached this option gingerly many times in the past in Toronto, we were never quite ready to make the leap; these new revelations may have altered the equation. The paradox is that just as we are starting to get out of our cars, we are also facing the need to renew, replace, or remove aging mid-20th century transportation and highway infrastructure, which has reached the end of its life cycle. The most dramatic examples of this aging infrastructure are the deteriorating concrete and steel elevated expressways like the Gardiner that have been exposed to intensive use and, in northern cities, to road salting, for about 60 years.

This is where the opportunity arises.

At a certain point, the cost and difficulty of maintaining or in our case entirely rebuilding these structures raises the question of whether it makes sense to keep them. Rather than replacement, the decaying infrastructure can be modified or altered to become one that favours more environmentally sound means of getting around harmonizes with a more productive city form.

Decisions like this are never easy to make. They involve major costs, dislocations of traffic and population, and logistical challenges, to say nothing of having to summon the necessary political will. But they are decisions worth making. The cost of replacing these aging structures, when added to the opportunity to gain access to all the lands they occupy or sterilize by their presence, will in the long run usually outweigh the costs and pain of making the change. Numerous cities have reached this conclusion, and they’ve engaged in elevated highway takedowns.

West Side Highway collapse at 14th Street


Most famous, perhaps, is the extraordinary Big Dig in Boston. But there are other examples: the West Side Highway in New York and the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco both literally collapsed, one due to its deteriorating structure and the latter due to an earthquake. Neither was replaced. To these we can add the Central Freeway, San Francisco; Fort Washington Way in Cincinnati; a portion of our own Gardiner Expressway in Toronto; the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle; Harbor Drive in Portland, Oregon; and the Cheonggyecheon Highway in Seoul, South Korea. With now over a hundred examples of such highway removal or downsizing, transportation researchers have generally found not only that the affected areas improved and prospered but also that the redistribution of traffic onto other facilities and transit has worked when the alternatives have been well planned in advance and well managed.

Two of the examples — New York and San Francisco — are particularly instructive for Toronto at this juncture because the decisions were made in response to a crisis that focused on the hard choices.

On December 15, 1973, a section of the northbound lanes of the New York’s West Side Highway in Lower Manhattan collapsed under the weight of a dump truck carrying over 30 tons of asphalt. The next day, both directions of the highway were indefinitely closed. Prior to that in 1971, the City’s Urban Development Corporation had proposed an elaborate plan to bring the highway up to Interstate standards by routing it along the ends of the then mostly abandoned piers on the Hudson River. This plan was revised and renamed “Westway” in 1974, calling for burying the highway in new landfill south of 40th Street. The plan was hotly contested and by 1985, New York City officially gave up on the project, allocating 60% of its interstate highway funds to mass transit and setting aside $811 million for the “West Side Highway Replacement Project” which is a surface artery with bike lanes and a linear park using the abandoned piers. Together with the northern Henry Hudson Parkway, this surface route creates a landscaped boulevard along the Hudson River from the northern tip to the southern tip of Manhattan. And the city has somehow survived and prospered.

In San Francisco, a 1986 plan to tear down the Embarcadero Freeway was defeated after opponents argued that removing the freeway would cause gridlock. But then, in 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the Embarcadero Freeway and other freeways in the Bay Area reopening the debate about whether to remove or repair this freeway. This time, the gridlock argument was ineffective since the Embarcadero Freeway had to be closed after the earthquake and by the time the city made its decision on the freeway, traffic had adjusted to new conditions. By 1991, after the removal of the freeway, real estate values in adjacent neighborhoods had gone up up by 300%. Since then entire new neighbourhoods oriented to the waterfront have been built and are thriving in areas that had been hard to develop when the freeway helped form a barrier that isolated the waterfront. The readjustment was challenging but no one would now argue that the decision should not have been made.

There are surely a range of solutions including possible hybrids for the Gardiner’s replacement. But the guiding criterion for choosing a direction should be that it leads to a more sustainable balance of mobility options.

Suggestions are already emerging about future Gardiner repairs, but most pressing is how can the City begin to pay for it. Should there be a form of congestion pricing? Where would the revenues go? If all were directed to just rebuilding and maintaining the existing Gardiner, we will have made no progress. It is important at this critical juncture not to react in panic or to go on automatic pilot. This could be the crisis that really precipitates a serious discussion on the future of movement in our city. It is too valuable to waste. It should not be treated as an isolated problem but a building block to a more sustainable future for Toronto.


Ken Greenberg is a Toronto-based urban designer



  1. Within this “crisis” is an opportunity – but we’ll see if there is the ability and will to start looking at the full range of options – including transit and tolls – as the the Fordist camp are obviously keen on maintain the Free-way status of this polluting excessway, and put all of us in a $traitjacket to pay for it.

    Tolls to pay for the maintenance should have been put in years ago – why is it not at the same level of user pay as GO and the TTC and the Island Ferry as the mere (unmotorized) public can’t get on it, though that road surface has inspired the term “glassphalt” since it’s so good compared to say, Bloor St.

    At some point I hope we can return to the idea of a Front St. transitway, (not the Front St. Extension) as it could be the ticket to providing a mobility option for many, and boosting east-west transit in that critical corridor. It only took about 6 years to sink that road-based folly of the Pantalone Porkway, but alas, there wasn’t the interest in looking at transit options instead of cars as our Official Plan and varied statements etc. of both province and city about the need for encouraging sustainable mobility.

    In the meanwhile, the inclusion and appearance of this crisis at Budget can smell of some “managing” of this issue, and we must ensure that it get pushed back out of the Budget to a planning discussion, and also insist that the penny-wise pound-foolish alleged conservatives (and others) have their noses rubbed in what happens when maintenance gets cut.

    Uncontrolled and salty water is extremely bad for much concrete and our infrastructure. I’d like to see the gutter joint of the Viaduct on the south side be well sealed this winter please as a first start in making amends.

  2. Seems to me this is as good an opportunity as any to get the cost of the freeways off the public purse. Create a Toronto Automobile Commission, give them access to all revenues the city may be generating from use of the expressway (e.g. fees from billboards oriented to traffic), and then get the users to pay for it… why not to the same percentage tune as user fees pay for the TTC?

    At the end of the day the Gardiner is not common-use infrastructure, so it shouldn’t be directly paid for.

    (Another option is to privatize its use and management completely, as was done for the 407)


  3. With the study aborted by interference and/ or neglect, the public is left to rely for figures on the people who, along with Ford’s office, used messaging to keep the public & Councillors in the dark.
    What’s the price of a tear down? “..a billion, 2 billion, 3 billion..” and oops it’s too late now. I’d prefer an expedited EA and a second opinion.
    The teardown of the first Gardiner leg produced a suburban-style limited access arterial that races between a linear railway/ ‘park’ buffer on the north and box stores & industry on the south . Rather than predicted traffic carmegedon it’s biggest problem is being dull.
    Unlike the first tear down, the rest of the Gardiner is, or will be, mixed-use, offering a better potential for integration with its surroundings, and just like West Street (NYC) it’s a lot easier to improve a surface boulevard than a bridge or tunnel. 

  4. I think three ideas need to be floated…

    1) Demolish it, a small percentage of the traffic will switch to other routes, most will simply disappear as people decide that GO or TTC are a better way of getting downtown then to drive. They already did this with one portion, maybe the rest should go to.

    2) Offer to sell it to a 407 style consortium with the idea that they will either replace it with a tunnel or rebuild it, based on the funding they can attract. They will then recover their cost through the use of tolls. Even if the city sells this white elephant for $1, it takes the massive expense of maintaining it off the cities books.

  5. Very insightful premise that raises very pertinent and important questions. I live in WNY and find myslf in the GTA several times a year for various reasons. Here at the other end of the Golden Horseshoe, we are faced with the same problems and looking at similar solutions. The infamous Skyway in downtown Buffalo has been talked about for deconstruction for two decades. The Robt Moses expressway along the Falls has been decomissioned from vehicle traffic and is now only for pedestrian use. Toronto would do well to rid itself of this scary monstrosity and therefore reconnect people and neighborhoods to each other and to the waterfront along the lake.

  6. The false narrative of this is that the city simply can’t afford to repair this highway or to run it as a toll-road. These are both false.

    The only “risk” (for interested parties) is in seeing inappropriate non-functional car-based infrastructure like this disappear from their ledgers.

    Privatizing an expressway is just a way of keeping it alive (along with the poison legacy it supports) long after the public wants it removed. The future owner of this highway will work tirelessly to keep his money-generating sewer full of cars.

    Why support a “plan” that limits future options and tries to save bad social behavior by adding a greed-incentive to it?

  7. An elegant and efficient solution was proposed in 2006 by Toronto citizen and civil engineer Jose Gutierrez. Jose envisions a cable-stayed viaduct suspended over the rail corridor, reaching from the CNE to the DVP. Cantilevered construction techniques would allow it to be built over the rail lines while they are in service. The viaduct would support ten lanes of vehicular traffic and two lanes of light rail, while including a large multipurpose cycling/pedestrian channel and even 35 stories of condos integrated into each main support pylon; these would be 300 to 500 meters apart. (see the Zakim Bridge that was part of the Boston Big Dig, and see

    Construction costs would fall in the $3B range, call it $6B with overruns, which could be funded with a profit by selling the land under the Gardiner to developers (with a plan, of course!).

    The Gardiner would then be torn down after the new corridor is in service. No traffic disruption, and no cost over-runs due to the logistics of that nightmare.

  8. To knee-jerk solely on the Gardiner simply repeats Toronto’s pattern of myopic, piecemeal responses to many metropolitan issues. We need a ‘Bigger Move’ strategy – beyond the Big Move on rail/bus transit – that comprehensively addresses all forms of movement within the metropolitan region (freight included), linked to future population and land use. Whatever is decided for the Gardiner will seal movement patterns in the metropolitan region for generations to come, not only in the urban core.

  9. While the cantilever idea is elegant, there is absolutely no need for it. We do not need to build more highway capacity, rather we must reduce it and replace it with much more efficient forms of transportation. To waste $3B or $6B on another highway is not what the city needs for the next 50 years (what this decision will actually mean).

  10. This is intolerable. We elect 45 people to administer the near $10b business of Toronto and we get this? We need a change of culture on Toronto Council before we make too many big decisions. You believe me, don’t you? There’s been no serious work done since this current Council commenced. Lots of flip-flopping, time-wasting on things like elephants/chickens/kites and showcasing going on, but I don’t believe we’re getting value for money. The City is in desperate need for better Planning but the Planning Department is decimated and relegated to low man on the totem pole. We’re getting the city we deserve if we don’t make some serious, grown-up decisions soon.