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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

COVID-19 stimulus spending needs to be wise to the perils of road building

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In times of economic crisis, stimulus spending is important. But spending it wisely is even more important. In the midst of the climate and public health crisis you’d think we’d be on a recovery better path than we are today.

Efforts to get the economy running again have long-lasting legacies

It is well established logic that in times of economic downturns, Governments step in to stimulate the economy.

Investments in infrastructure and services that create jobs and return productivity growth (and taxes) kick-start a struggling economy. Governments borrow so people don’t have to. Government’s build things because the private sector does not (yes, this is a very generous simplification).

Each wave of historic recoveries have vested the governments of the time with an enormous amount of power to reshape and recast society, not least through the built environment. Think of the New Deal Work Progress Administration (WPA) projects that are still vital parts of infrastructure in the United States, nearly a century after they were built. Public money gets funnelled into creating public assets, particularly those that create assets of value to society while also creating jobs.

We know what a green recovery could look like

A wise, green recovery package would invest in tempering climate warming emissions and adapting to their impacts. Things like insulation and energy efficiency in buildings, restoring natural environments for flood prevention among other benefits, upgrading digital connectivity and electricity transmission infrastructure, building better sidewalks and cycle tracks, shifting transit to electric vehicles. All things that reduce energy waste and reliance on fossil fuels, enhance the public realm and quality of life and put people to work.

But in 2020, 23 years after the Kyoto agreement, five years on from the Paris agreement, we are repeating some of the same mistakes of the past. According to C40 cities “only 3 – 5% of an estimated US$12 – $15 trillion in international COVID stimulus funding is committed to green initiatives.”

Ontario falls into this trap too.

The problem

Transportation is biggest source of emissions in Ontario. Second nationally to the oil and gas sector. Federal reporting states that “between 1990 and 2018, GHG emissions from the transportation sector grew by 53%. The growth in emissions was mostly driven by increases from freight trucks and passenger light trucks” (that is SUVs to you and me). Our cars’ engines have been getting more efficient, but cars are getting supersized.

While our electric supply is somewhat cleaner our sprawl and auto-dependency is still hooked on petroleum. As C40 point out, reductions in North America cities depend significantly on “measures to reduce the high auto share of cities characterized by urban sprawl.”

Cue Ontario’s recovery budget

Ontario’s budget contains CAD $22 Billion for highways over ten years; $150 per head of population per year. For comparison, the US earmarked US$91 per person for Highways in its 2009 recovery spending (this obviously excludes state spending) at a time when the exchange rate was close to 1 for 1. The British government has set aside approximately CAD$85 per person per year for highways in England. So sadly, Ontario isn’t alone in spending on highways but the order of the spend is fairly drastic.

The results of this are given as examples in the Ontario budget documents. They involve building 790 kilometres of new road lanes. The equivalent of building a brand-new two-way road from Toronto to Windsor. And this road will fill up quickly.

It is well established new roads stimulate new demand. Put simply, journeys get quicker, more people opt for the car for more of their journeys. New roads also stimulate new development, either planned by cities on greenfield land, or achieved by developer or land-owners asking for zoning changes. New buildings go up near the new roads and more traffic arrives. It’s a pattern that repeats over and over.

Without major intervention, such as the lockdowns we have seen in 2020, the volume of traffic grows and with it emissions.

That is not to say that the people currently tied into tedious and frustrating commutes on 400 series highways don’t deserve better – but expanding highways is not the way to achieve better.

Nearly a decade ago I was comfortable making the case for infrastructure renewal – including highways and bridges – but I’m not sure this high carbon infrastructure still deserves it.

Rather than take this opportunity to steer Ontario toward a cleaner future, $22 billion of public money is going to make it worse.

David Harvey succinctly describes the 20th century as “building suburbs and filling them with stuff.” It feels like Ontario hasn’t left the 20th century yet.

Read about Environmental Defence’s campaign against Highway 413

Read Shoshanna Saxe and Kristen MacAskill in the NYT

Nick is an independent policy and communications consultant from the UK, currently working out of Toronto, specializing in transport and environment issues. Follow him on Twitter @Nicholas_I_S



  1. I feel that Ontario is in a unique situation due to the strong increase in population we will continue to see due to Canada’s immigration policy. While I agree with the general sentiment regarding highway building, this would be before the aggressive immigration policy was implemented. A growing population requires growing infrastructure of all types including highways.

    “Transportation is biggest source of emissions in Ontario.”
    I have been following the electrification of vehicles and I believe the changeover to electric transportation will happen faster than most people expect. As with other technologies there will be a drastic drop in prices coming making electric vehicles extremely attractive by 2030. Today fleets are making advance purchases of electric vehicles and by 2026 consumers will have a wide variety of electric cars to choose from. By 2030, GHG emissions from transportation will not be something that we will be discussing. Instead, the conversion to electric heating as buildings will then be the biggest GHG emitters. The government could help speed this along but even if they don’t the market will do all the work.

    The largest problem is the structure of our cities and zoning. If we were to move to a less restrictive zoning, we could remove many trips. If you could get your hair cut next door and walk over to the next block to pick up produce, that would reduce demand for vehicle infrastructure at the city level.

  2. Some say “Think outside the box.” I say throw out the box!

    What if the only major highway expansions approved are toll lanes/roads? What if electric autos were charged half price or free? Trucks charged top dollar for electric and non-green (diesel) prohibited. This to encourage sending freight via rail instead of road. Possibly redirecting some of the highway expansion dollars to rail expansion (double tracking) and reduce/relieve property taxes paid by railways. Even up things. No trucking companies run snow plows down the highway they travel on but all railways have to do this. This after buying land, building track, maintaining track.

  3. Nobody is building new highway lanes in Toronto or its immediate suburbs so I’m not sure what the issue is here – if we want people to move to other places in Ontario (we do) we need to make sure the infrastructure to grow the economy exists in those places. Highways are vital – they move resources, people, energy, facilitate construction and open up new areas to development where it can be handled properly and with modern amenities & planning.

  4. DL — hate to break the news to you, but the gov has already moved into Phase 2 of the GTA West highway corridor study.

    Aside from that, I take it you’ve never heard of induced demand? Or studied traffic planning? Yes, highways are needed in places, but you’d be surprised how little they help.