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Suburban Sprawl and Gridlock: Hopeless?
05/01/2004

The past couple years have seen a great deal of discussion about the "gridlock problem" in the suburban areas of Toronto.

The Toronto Star has adopted this as one of its pet issues for an on-going campaign. They hope that transit infrastructure can gradually be built in the 905 to solve the problem. Unfortunately, I think this quest is nearly hopeless.

In an ideal suburbia, you would be living in a spacious enclave at the edge of the city. You have to drive everywhere, but since you are at the edge, traffic is light and it is easy for you to zip around the outside to get wherever you need to go.

Unfortunately, in a fast-growing region like the GTA, your ideal situation is not going to last long. New subdivisions will be built, and of course, they will be built upstream from you. Your area is now clogged with people passing through, and you are surrounded.

Given the low densities and the way different land uses are divided, you have to drive a lot. So does everyone else. And remember, traffic is determined by how many cars are on the road at any given moment, not how many are owned. You and your neighbours have your cars out on the road a lot of the time.

Thus, gridlock.

A heroic politician could save the day for you, and blast a new highway through to somewhere. Congestion might be eased for a while, but nature abhors a vacuum. Fast growth will quickly accomodate this new corridor and people will build houses, take jobs, and assume habits that will fill this road up.

There are theories that people will arrange their lifestyle in a way that caps the time (as opposed to distance) that they are willing to drive. People get in a jam (pun intended) when they configure their life based on these travel patterns and then the environment changes and they are simply forced to drive more than they would have wanted.

Anyway, we have gridlock, and people hope that transit can solve the problem. But I have my doubts about how effective it can be in the 905 zone.

Sure, people can take the GO into downtown, but for point-to-point suburban trips, transit is challenged.

Sure, you might get lucky, and the bus in front of your house goes exactly where you want to go. More likely, you have to walk a long way to get out of your subdivision, wait a long time until the bus comes along, and then transfer a couple times to get to your equally obscure destination.

To be honest, I really think that the suburban environment makes car use almost inevitable. Even if the cost of gas went up to $2 per litre, I still doubt we'd see a big change in kilometres driven.

What can be done?

First, we need to stop new edge development. Otherwise, any cars we get off the road will be replaced by new upstream drivers.

Second, we need to gradually reshape our suburban communities to reduce the need for driving.

Either we do these things, or we can live with gridlock in the 905 belt, and outer 416.


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