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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

GREENBERG: 8 steps to change the future of the Gardiner

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It now appears that an important threshold has been crossed. With the news that over half of the elevated Gardiner Expressway on both sides of downtown Toronto is literally failing structurally — and would have to be substantially replaced at enormous cost, probably in excess of $500 million — a penny has dropped.

It is inconceivable that we would rebuild this expressway from scratch as if we were back in the 1960s, a time when the major goal for this structure was the unencumbered movement of cars through an obsolescent industrial corridor south of the downtown. The world surrounding the Gardiner is radically different; it now traverses one of one of the most rapidly developing high-density mixed-use communities in North America. Without a doubt, there is a painful disconnect between the sterile legacy of the mid-20th century highway environment and the thousands of new pedestrians now populating this emerging area aspiring to be a successful 21st century city.

What to do next may become one of the defining decisions for this Toronto City Council simply because it is unavoidable and will either propel us forward or push us backwards since the choices are stark and leave little room for compromise. We have a major opportunity before us to use this crisis to reduce our dependence on cars and make the shift to more sustainable alternatives. But how do we collectively seize the opportunity to make this massive shift?

While many bold ideas are being voiced — bury it, move it out into the harbour, sell it off — City Council needs a practical road map to make an important leap into a new way of seeing the city’s future that will demonstrate vision and garner broad support. It has to begin by modifying one major assumption: we cannot plan for accommodating the same number of vehicles that currently use this corridor. In fact, the goal has to be to substantially reduce that number. This is the essential paradigm shift that is occurring in major cities around the world as they seek to grow more sustainable by becoming denser, more mixed, compact, and less car dependent.  prime examples being the removal of the elevated West Side Highway in New York and the elevated Embarcadero in San Francisco.

Here some thoughts about framing a plan of action:

Secure the Gardiner

Safety is obviously paramount. Chunks of concrete are falling off and sooner or later there will be a catastrophe. Nets or some form of secure protection are needed now plus some urgent repairs.

Accelerate the completion of the Environmental Assessment with changed assumptions

The Environmental Assessment begun by Waterfront Toronto and the City in 2008 and shelved in 2010 was examining the potential removal or modification of the Gardiner from Jarvis to the east. It urgently needs to be completed but with important changes to the underlying terms of reference. We now know that the Gardiner is structurally unsound on both sides of downtown. We also have to look at alternatives that call for an even greater reduction in automobile traffic in the corridor in favour of other modes.

Exhibit the work from the International Competition held in 2009/10

As part of the aborted Environmental Assessment an International Competition was held with top interdisciplinary teams from around the world looking at alternative solutions for the eastern portion of the Gardiner. Seeing these designs would be an important step in engaging the public in a discussion of possible futures.

Produce a new set of alternatives for the entire corridor for the Environmental Assessment including ones that show what a reasonably scaled surface network would look like (designed for reduced traffic) along with an accelerated combination of compensating transit and active transportation alternatives including GO, the Downtown Relief Line, the Waterfront LRT, and a range of Traffic Demand Management measures.

This combination of contraction and expansion is the crux of the paradigm shift. It has to simultaneously reduce auto-capacity while dramatically expanding alternatives. It has to be bold and aggressive. It has to look out 15 to 20 years and needs active involvement from Metrolinx and the TTC. It has to accept that there is no gain without pain, which is inevitable no matter what course of action we choose. And it must be directly linked to the broader decisions facing our community about funding strategies to make crucial investments in viable long term transportation strategies. It may become the most significant demonstration of a new political will to tackle the need to make this change.

Model the alternative visions for the new Gardiner-Lakeshore corridor

The Environmental Assessment is not just a technical exercise about traffic and mobility. At its heart, its an act of city building. It will speak directly to the kind of city we aspire to become. It is important to help people visualize how this critical decision will re-shape this part of the city. Residents need to visualize what the conditions on the ground can be including improvements to the public realm, increased access to the waterfront, and the opportunities for economic development and neighbourhood building.

Do a broad comparative analysis of how these visions would perform, qualitatively and quantitatively

This is one of the most important decisions that the city will make. It is important to understand the places and opportunities it will create and their impacts in terms of environmental, social and economic terms.

Provide a serious parallel analysis of how to finance this shift

Identify the combination of public and private sources that can be tapped. This is a regional transportation problem; its about more than the highway and should be paid for by more than Toronto taxpayers.  There are also opportunities for offsetting revenues from private sources.

Identify the steps and interim conditions that would be required to make the phased transition

One of the most important considerations is how to keep the city functioning during the unavoidably significant period during which the shift would occur.

This is an extremely important piece of work; its consequences are far reaching. To be successful it will require a major coordinated effort by many parties acting together under pressure and it may just be that pressure and the sense of urgency around an impending crisis that makes it possible for Toronto to step up to the plate.

Ken Greenberg is one of Canada’s leading urban designers and a frequent contributor to Spacing



  1. While I agree with everything Ken says, in theory, I think we will be hard pressed to imagine a total tear down.

    A 4-lane Front St extension is pretty much off the table; and there are few if any effective alternatives that could maintain or even come close to maintaining current road capacity without the Gardiner.

    Given the urgency of maintenance, I think what we can and should push for; is the tear down east of Jarvis, which previous studies have shown is viable as the Gardiner is far less used, as is Lakeshore in this section.

    The already proposed teardown of the current Harbour/Bay.York off-ramp is also a must.

    But getting rid of the rest of that eyesore is more than challenging and I suspect the best we can hope for is a more aesthetic treatment for the balance of the elevated portion.

    Though I’m open to any idea that suggests otherwise at a reasonable price.

    In terms of alternatives…..if the six-year lifespan for some sections is understood to mean that we have only that time to assemble any transit alternative, then the DRL will not be in place in time, or even close.

    What may be viable is GO Lakeshore electrification, and frequent, all-day 15 minute service, (5 in rush hours), which just might make a big enough difference for a larger discussion, but that study will have to begin within weeks to get answers in time to get construction done on a very tight timeline.

  2. I am not convinced that the DRL is necessarily part of the transit alternative package for a Gardiner tear-down. We already know that the eastern leg of the expressway is more lightly used as it is fed by traffic from the DVP that has not already split off at exits further out. How much travel demand does this represent, and can we reasonably assume that a lot of it would switch to a subway line ending at Danforth and Pape?

    The argument in favour of keeping the Gardiner has always turned on the issue of through traffic and trucking, trips that are not easily transferable to an improved transit network.

    The fastest way to get a Gardiner rebuild project launched is to overprice the transit alternatives by including elements that won’t offload Gardiner demand.

  3. I’ve never been in favour of tearing down the Gardiner, but the price tag of repair and maintenance is just too high to justify having an Expressway through the heart of the City.

    We need to use this as an opportunity to overhaul the entire corridor.

    We need to not worry about the removal of traffic capacity. Union Station serves many times more people than the Gardiner (and DVP combined) and with increased efficiency and capacity there, a shift to rail could be leveraged.

    Other than that, many other cities have removed downtown highway infrastructure without the collapse of their entire economy. There’s no reason why we can’t do the same.

    Or, you know, we could just procrastinate until a chunk of concrete smashes through the roof of a car on Lake Shore Blvd…

  4. I disagree with the proposition that road capacity be reduced.  it has already been neglected for a generation.  The navel gazing and perpetual hand wringing needs to end and something needs to get done in a hurry.  using the CNE grounds as a staging location, drop three tunneling machines in the ground – one for subway and two for road traffic.  Get it done in six years and then tear down the Gardiner and add surface/shore biking/park/boardwalk.

  5. The gardiner to me has a certain nostalgia of a era that is long gone and wont return. Even the olive green girders match the once olive green appliances Ive seen in old kitchens when I was growing up.  Shopping malls, big cars, toxic chemicals and smoking were king back then.

    It was built when our city started to become a real metropolis. I certainly would not support building a highway today however I believe the Gardiner has become part of our cities fabric and is pretty much integrated into our evolving city. Much like the industrial train tracks and the round house, are a product of the 1800’s when our country was young frontier. 

    In the 50ies and 60ies we were demolishing so called dated victorian buildings. The buildings that were spared demolition such as those in king west, and the distillery are cherished today.

    My position is to restore the gardiner as is with its unique shaped and coloured columns and girders. I hope its never replaced with the stark pragmatic concrete used on the 400 series highways. The gardiner provides world class views of our city. Take a walk under the gardiner and experience the 50ies and 60ies, its unique highway architecture. If the gardiner is demolished its going to look like a huge gap. A gap that what will take a minimum of 10 years to fill, if ever.  

    I dont think its comparable the the embarkedero in S.F. at all, and Ive been there. Personally I think the F.G. Gardiner Expressway is cool !!!! and hope it is repaired it is current form.

  6. I think this is a great start. However, people who don’t already agree with a vision for less cars will likely remain unconvinced when reading this kind of thing. Imagine the Ford brothers or other car-centric councillors reading this article – if it happens at all, it will be shoved aside for more immediate concerns and quickly forgotten or dismissed.

    As much as I like reading about smart people conceiving plans for the Gardiner rework, writing about it alone is not going to do it. This is the time for urbanists like yourself to talk to a number of councillors, especially the ones that don’t already agree with you, and pass on some of your knowledge so they can act in the city’s long-term interest and stand up against the more short-sighted alternatives. I genuinely fear that a majority of councillors are not altruistic enough to endanger their suburb-ward reelection for something that will benefit us only 20 years into the future or so. Having witnessed the LRT/subway debate, I just don’t think it’s likely that, threatened by the fear of losing a primary commuter artery, the people of Toronto in total will be able to have an objective discussion about this kind long-term investment.

    In my opinion, the success or downfall of a remotely reasonable Gardiner plan will be whether councillors are getting their much-needed education on all aspects of this topic, and while or after making the decision in council, pass down the message through the massive media coverage city politicians are getting. This cause must be championed by silencing uneducated voices that would otherwise capture the media with city-damaging visions, not by cutting them out of the picture but by showing them how they can change the city for the better instead.

    If you have done any more research than merely being a casual blog reader, have you thought about contacting your councillor for a discussion about this topic? Please do so, this is the time to save the city from irreparable damage.

  7. There is no way that the Gardiner could be torn down without causing severe traffic congestion elsewhere. The traffic will simply use Lake Shore and Highway 401 instead and the result will be massive traffic jams all day long, 7 days a week. Look at the traffic congestion when the Gardiner or the DVP are closed for annual maintenance (and that is on a weekend, imagine that in rush hour, and there is plenty of notice beforehand). No amount of public transportation will ever eliminate the need for the Gardiner because there are many people for whom public transportation is not a viable option (e.g. truck drivers, or reverse commuters to Mississauga).

  8. “No amount of public transportation will ever eliminate the need for the Gardiner.” 
    More people & goods pour through downtown (Midtown) New York City than Toronto or any other downtown in NA and they decided not to blast a freeway through Manhattan.

    Local roads with traffic lights can still carry high volumes of traffic. For example the six lanes of the Gardiner east of Jarvis carry about 40,000 vehicles daily, which is comparable to the 6 lane new ground level Lakeshore Blvd. which replaced the Gardiner East leg and carries about 45,000 a day.

    The question is not whether 100% of Gardiner users need to switch to a particular mode, but for 10 to 30% of vehicles to avoid the road during congested periods. 
    All it takes is some combination of the following; a few users driving less, some to switch driving times, a few to share vehicles, a few to move closer to jobs (downtown condos) a few to switch roads, a few to move to increased GO service, a few to switch to increased streetcar service or new waterfront lines and the rest to use the surface boulevard and Queens Quay which will extend east.
    The great motivator is avoiding waiting in line (congestion) given the fact that cities currently subsidize road use by giving it away to motor vehicles on a first come first served basis.

  9. I think the city needs to experiment, close the Gardener for 6 months. At the end of those six months, reassess. Even if they do a complete rebuild, your going to lose at least half of that traffic capacity for close to a decade anyway.

  10. I understand Mr. Greenberg’s rationale for tearing down the Gardiner. The highway is responsible for pouring vast quantities of cars into the downtown every day, which end up clog downtown streets like Spadina and University Avenue. However, I don’t think the city should consider tearing it down the defacto option. The Gardiner is a very important artery for downtown Toronto, in fact, it is the only way to get from many areas outside the city into downtown conveniently.

    The Gardiner is not only used by cars, but also by hundreds, if not thousands of intercity buses per day that serve terminals near Bay/Dundas and Union Station, and branch out all over the GTA, as well as to points like Kitchener/Waterloo, Hamilton, Ottawa, and Montreal. In addition, the Gardiner is important for trucks bringing goods in and out of the city.

    It is not like Downtown Toronto is strangled by multiple rings of freeways around the downtown, like many American cities. Elevated freeways perform important functions in very dense Asian cities like Hong Kong or Tokyo (places that Downtown is increasingly emulating). Highways in these cities are well designed and well integrated into the urban landscape. For example, Hong Kong elevated highways are narrower (4 lanes total), and they are supported by singular, white coloured columns that extend from a landscaped median in the centre of the road. This design is much less disruptive to people on the ground than the current design of the Gardiner, which features a forest of massive concrete columns, and casts a wide shadow on the street below.

    The City of Toronto should consider adapting the Gardiner to move freight and public transit buses in and out of the downtown, as well as a limited number of private vehicles. This traffic could be regulated by tolls that vary throughout the day based on demand, which would also pay for the roadway and perhaps even for citywide transit initiatives. A smaller, 4-lane wide highway could still move many people into the city by public transit, but would not create as much of a barrier for people at ground level, and would not clog the downtown with cars from the suburbs. It would also allow Lakeshore Blvd below to be transformed into a pedestrian-friendly environment, with street trees and everything. The best of both worlds!

  11. “This is the essential paradigm shift that is occurring in major cities around the world as they seek to grow more sustainable by becoming denser, more mixed, compact, and less car dependent. prime examples being the removal of the elevated West Side Highway in New York and the elevated Embarcadero in San Francisco” And so the myth gets repeated. San Fran and New York have far more developed road systems than Toronto and in both cases they are still recognizing that people are going to drive.Toronto has only one reasonably good east west route and if it is removed or reduced you will create real gridlock across the city. For me I dont find the Gardiner an issue at all; it is congested when it should be and for the rest of the time one can zip from east to west in 2 minutes; thats pretty amazing. I have used it during weekdays and had almost no traffic in front of me.I would keep Lakeshore as a local and bury the Gardener under it; it is the only option that can meet the demand and face it, there are people who will always drive for various reasons and they number in the thousands. And many more like me who want a choice of TTC, GO, cycling, and driving.

  12. If we’d managed to embrace a Front St. transitway, as urged over a few years, and hadn’t merely knocked off the road-based Front St. Extension, we might well have a reasonable option in place today, or soon, that would give us a transit mobility option to enable any type of work or change on the G/L.

    Also, please observe the difference in how lives are valued. Civic neglect is rampant throughout the road system, including in its plowing, and we have a few instances where this neglect has contributed considerably to some deaths of cyclists, and it is often a cheap set of fixes vs. a half-billion, and no one has been killed yet. Maybe we should limit speeds, on both the roads, and ensure that all the motorists wear helmets?

    We also clearly need to point out that this is a limited access road, and it’s far less of a public “good” than it’s made out to be. The users should be paying a fair share of costs, including perhaps capital costs, and it’d be good to tack on the land contamination costs from leaded gasoline too.