Why the Gardiner East decision, whatever it is, won’t be “evidence based”

Why the Gardiner East decision, whatever it is, won’t be “evidence based”
(Image: Peter Andrew)

Pity the 5,200 souls who drive the eastern stretch of the Gardiner during morning rush hour. They are getting a good whipping in the name of evidence-based policy. Nearly every argument in favour of the teardown points a finger at them. Architect Paul Raff, writing in the Toronto Star, claims that the issue of the Gardiner East’s future is one “of reality versus misinformation,” then cites the 5,200 drivers as an example of “reality.” These drivers are also getting a thorough public shaming of the kind only Twitter can deliver, the crime being their excessive hoarding of tax dollars for their aging infrastructure pet. (At least they each have 5,199 pairs of shoulders to lean upon, to help cope with the mortification.)

No one has taken these 5,200 drivers to greater task for their claim upon the public purse than councillor Josh Matlow, who, in an open statement to his constituents about his decision to support the teardown, explained that “the facts got in the way” of his feelings about the Gardiner. First among those facts: 5,200. Matlow then goes down the costing rabbit hole to demonstrate the burden all taxpayers will have to bear to keep 5,200 people arriving at work on time: by his reckoning, $6.43 per minute of delay for the next 30 years.

I’m not sure I can crank up the twisty elastics of suspense on this topic any further, so now is probably the time to let the propellers fly. It turns out the figure we’re all so fixated on—these 5,200 Gardiner East vehicles at rush hour—substantially underestimates the actual amount of traffic on the Gardiner East. As evidence goes, it’s almost completely unhelpful to the Gardiner debate.

When I inquired about the source of the number with Waterfront Toronto, I was told the 5,200 figure is actually an estimate of one average hour’s worth of vehicle traffic during the morning rush. The morning peak period is three hours long; a more realistic figure, then, would be 15,600. Moreover, it counts only westbound vehicles, since they are the ones most likely to experience delays on the way downtown. When I inquired about the total daily traffic volumes on the Gardiner in both directions, Waterfront Toronto pointed me to figure 3 on page 18 of this document. The Gardiner East carries about 115,000 cars per day. The graph clearly shows a three-hour morning peak period averaging roughly 8,000 vehicles per hour, for a total nearly five times the 5,200 figure everyone keeps citing.

To say nothing of the four-hour evening peak averaging 7,000 vehicles per hour. According to Waterfront Toronto spokesperson Andrew Hilton, the Gardiner East traffic studies modeled only the morning rush hour. The rationale was that, since the morning rush has higher vehicle counts, it is the one that will yield the worst-case scenarios for traffic delays. Given the lower intensity of afternoon peak travel, Hilton says that a useful rule of thumb would be to expect afternoon delays equal to 80 per cent of the morning delays. This logic doesn’t necessarily jibe with the lived experience of many motorists. The evening rush equals the morning rush plus the additional hordes who came into town between 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., which explains why its total volume is larger than the morning rush. But we don’t have any traffic-model projections for the afternoon eastbound delays, so we don’t even have an official number to quibble over.

At this point I would expect everyone who professes fealty to evidence-based policymaking to insist that we put a stop to this entire debate until city staff can report back on afternoon rush hour, except that I don’t believe, when it comes to this issue, that anyone truly possesses any such fealty. Councillor Matlow’s position paper offers a useful test case. After making so much hay on the backs of 5,200 commuters, he could perhaps adjust his calculations for the 52,000 actual ones who ride the Gardiner in both directions during both peak periods. He’s such a good sport he may even take the time to do it. But I predict he won’t change his mind as a result, proving that his math was just for show.

Which is fine. I don’t begrudge Matlow a decision based on something other than traffic counts. I begrudge him only the charade of pretending otherwise. In the end, the fate of the Gardiner East is an intensely emotional issue, and I think the entire city and region would do well to recognize that our clashing ambitions for the city’s future are clouding our perceptions of the available evidence. I offer up the first mea culpa: having already argued in favour of the Hybrid option, and also in favour of tolling the Gardiner, I’ve spent most of this column pounding the table over a bit of data I find spurious, as though it were the only number that mattered.

The Gardiner East issue has always been larger than the sum of all its evidence, and its future lies beyond the churnings of any traffic-modelling program. This debate loudly echoes the city’s myths of origin, especially for those who hold those myths dear and have taken their lessons to heart. Torontonians once stopped the construction of a highway, in order to save neighbourhoods. Now they perceive a chance to tear down a highway, in order to build neighbourhoods. A new generation is determined to have its Spadina Expressway moment.

But there is a crucial distinction to be made between then and now. Those who fought against the Spadina Expressway stood up to the development industry, which wanted the highway built to open up far-flung greenfields for low-density tracts of detached family homes. They built those tracts anyway and left commuters and governments to deal with the traffic chaos. Today those who want to tear down the Gardiner stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a development industry—or at the very least, a large and vocal subset of that industry—which wants land opened up for condo towers, developments that come with their own set of excesses and pitfalls.

The biggest charade of the debate so far has been the coalition of developers that calls itself CityBuilders. These people have not suddenly converted to the light of New Urbanism; they just recognize where their profit is to be had. This is the same industry that brought you Vaughan. They are the same people who are rebuilding downtown for a vertical lifestyle, complete with a dearth of transit service and green space, both of which are lacking because city hall failed to plan for the growth. They are going to sell their Expressway District condos before the neighbourhood is ever built. By the time the city figures out whether or not it’s got another development-induced traffic disaster on its hands they’ll be long gone. Developers are experts at marketing utopias. They have yet to build one.

The idea of tearing down the Gardiner is now more than 20 years old, a relic of a recession-starved 1990s Toronto that was desperate for a visionary idea. In the interim, with the Gardiner standing, Toronto has become the envy of the world, a magnet for global talent and investment and construction cranes. The biggest drawback has been the gridlock. Travel capacity of every kind has become the city’s scarcest commodity, and in this regard the Gardiner has yet to outlive its usefulness. The Gardiner is also a genuinely amazing piece of infrastructure, one that would offer city builders the poetic challenge of crafting beauty, improving function and finding opportunity within existing constraints, rather than razing themselves a blank canvas. It’s the hybrid option, not the teardown, that presents the greater and more interesting challenge for Toronto’s future development. Provided, of course, that the city is prepared to take it up.


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