The Toronto case study

Although this paper considers the entire Central Ontario Zone, Toronto lies at the centre of the region and dominates its economy, development patterns, and transportation issues. In addition, the City of Toronto (formerly Metropolitan Toronto) represents an ongoing, forty-year-plus experiment in transportation–land use coordination that is routinely studied and cited around the world. Therefore, it is reasonable to examine the Toronto case study in terms of what we might learn from our own history that might help us set future policy, not just for Toronto, but for the Central Ontario Zone as a whole.

Toronto, or more generally the GTA, has been described as “Vienna surrounded by Phoenix.”22 While allowing for some hyperbole in both parts of the analogy, there is truth in the notion that the GTA is a tale of two cities: a traditional, largely monocentric, reasonably dense, transit-oriented one, and a late-twentieth century, low-density, auto-oriented, suburban one. The travel patterns to downtown Toronto versus suburban activity centres such as Pearson Airport or Square One are evidence of this difference.

In looking ahead to future development decisions and their expected impacts on travel demand, we need to remember (and, in some cases, re-learn) what has worked in the past and to compare Toronto with comparable cities to get a better sense of what has worked and what hasn’t. In particular, two recent studies – one comparing Toronto and Boston, and one comparing Toronto and Melbourne – can help us think more clearly about the Toronto case.

Schimek (1997) undertook a detailed comparison of land use and travel demand in the GTA and in the Boston urbanized region, which, he argues, are comparable urban areas in terms of population, land area, macro urban structure, extensive multi-modal transit systems, and economic functions. He found that Toronto’s transit usage (measured in terms of either per capita ridership or mode splits) is considerably higher than Boston’s. Why? Although differences in income, auto ownership levels, and gasoline prices between the two regions obviously play some role, Schimek argues that the key difference is in the coordinated land use–transportation policies of Metropolitan Toronto during Metro’s critical growth period of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Because of these policies, the suburban areas of Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough have higher population and employment densities than comparable areas in Boston, and it is precisely in these areas that transit ridership is significantly higher in Toronto than in Boston. Conversely, the central areas of both cities are very similar (indeed, Boston’s central area is denser and more concentrated than Toronto’s), as are the more recently developed suburbs (the “905” region and its Boston equivalent), and transit usage in both areas of the two cities (that is, central city and newer suburban) are generally comparable. Thus, although no-one would argue that Metro was consistently and universally successful in coordinating land use and transportation policy, it did explicitly attempt to do so, with, as Schimek demonstrates, a discernable degree of success.

Mees (2000) conducted a similar comparative analysis of Toronto and Melbourne. He argues that Toronto and Melbourne are comparable in terms of population, size, age, transit systems (Melbourne’s rail system is actually more extensive than Toronto’s), and macro land use patterns. Yet Toronto’s transit ridership is much greater than Melbourne’s. In his discussion, Mees does not discount urban form as a factor in determining transit usage, but he argues that the key difference between Toronto and Melbourne is the high-quality, reliable, coordinated, centrally planned transit service provided by the TTC, as opposed to the uncoordinated, much less reliable service provided in Melbourne. Thus, the nature, level and quality of transit service offered (in terms of service frequency, coverage, coordinated transfers, and reliability) is as important as a transit-supportive land use policy in terms of determining transit usage.

Indeed, the two must go together: a high-quality transit service can be developed only if a supportive land use structure is in place, and a transit-supportive land use design will not succeed without an appropriate transit system providing a competitive, attractive alternative to the private automobile.

The arguments of Schimek and Mees indicate that the Metropolitan Toronto experiment of the 1950s–70s era in governance, land use planning, and transit system design was relatively successful, compared to the experience in similar cities elsewhere. This finding can be contrasted with the more recent experience of the past two decades of uncoordinated, non-transit-oriented growth in the GTA, as well as across the Central Ontario Zone.

22. This phrase is attributed to Juri Pill, then TTC General Manager, Planning, in a Toronto Star article in February 1990.