Toronto is Canada’s biggest, richest and most challenged city
The 6ix has most of the people and money but none of the power
Toronto is the largest city in Canada and among the most diverse, cosmopolitan, educated and successful cities in the world. But it has serious challenges from poor transit to congestion to unaffordable housing prices that have led to significant discontent among many of its citizens. Most clearly that was expressed in the election a few years ago of a populist outrage machine as Mayor, reflected now in the selection of his brother as the Conservative party leader for the upcoming provincial election.
What are the systemic causes of Toronto’s challenges?
Having lived in Toronto twice for a total of 17 years, having lived in four other major cities in Canada and globally, having visited 24 cities in the past seven years alone and being an amateur urban planning nerd, I have some thoughts. Some will agree, some will disagree, because cities are complex systems and many times the only solutions are the least-worst ones.
To be clear, I’m a big fan of Toronto. I love walking, biking and taking transit around it. I love a lot of the architecture. I love the cosmopolitan and diverse nature of the populace. I love the variety of cultural opportunities. I love the restaurants.
But it’s not a Singapore, New York or Vancouver. It has some systemic challenges which make it challenging for a lot of people.
Let’s run through some of them.
Toronto amalgamated a few cities almost 20 years ago into one municipal structure. This led to a lot of variance that, for example Vancouver doesn’t experience on city council. There are a lot of suburban representatives from car-focussed regions as well as actual urban representatives. This is a least worst solution, perhaps. It’s certainly a choice but it comes with advantages and disadvantages. Some of the advantages are better regional planning across a larger area, but disadvantages include a lot of councillors who see bike lanes as a war on their prime constituency.
Seat of Provincial Government
Queen’s Park, the provincial legislature, is in Toronto. Toronto is ruled by the Ontario Municipal Act, which applies to all urban areas in the huge area of Ontario. The provincial MPPs are the suburban councillors writ large. Many of them represent entirely rural ridings where Toronto is considered an evil, and not a necessary evil in many cases. The Municipal Acts places significant limitations on how Toronto can raise revenue. As a result, major capital initiatives need Provincial funding as well. This leads to political contortions and not the best outcomes for Toronto.
Ontario has all the power
In 2018, the provincial government of Ontario legally overrode the four-year consultative redistricting process Toronto had performed, and arbitrarily set the number of councillors at 25. The province was effectively able to do this with the stroke of a pen. It was ethically wrong and empirically without merit, but legally permissible. Metro Toronto produces 55% of Ontario’s GDP and has almost half of Ontario’s population. But it exists at the whim of Queen’s Park, the seat of Provincial government. This is due to cities being an afterthought in the original Canadian constitution, which was written when the ten largest Canadian towns had less than 10% of the population of the country. Provinces have the power to define and govern cities within their boundaries any way they want.
Biggest and richest city in Canada
The Toronto Census Area has the economic output of Alberta and is close to equal to all of Quebec. It’s more than the six smallest provinces put together. It generates about 20% of Canada’s total GDP. It’s home to about 20% of all Canadians. This is amazing. And as a result Toronto gets a lot of hate from non-Torontonians. And those non-Torontonians vote in Federal and Ontario Provincial elections. Because of the Municipal Act and Federal taxation rules, most of the governmental revenue from that economic might flows to the Province and the Canadian Federal government. Toronto constantly is begging for money from two additional layers of government which are riddled with people whose constituents hate it. This means important capital expenditures like transit upgrades take forever to gain consensus on and change with each federal and provincial election.
It’s in Canada
Don’t get me wrong, Canada is awesome. But globally we are hewers of wood and drillers for oil. A lot of our finance is focused on resource extraction. We’re not a global source of intellectual capital, market innovation or startups. We’re pretty good, but we aren’t the USA or China or Singapore. And Toronto is explicitly not a resource extraction town, but a financial centre, a technology center and an intellectual capital center. It’s challenging to explain Toronto’s economy to people from other areas of Canada some times. It’s an alien insertion in a resource extraction and distribution economy.
This is a provincial transit agency that is supposed to build transit in the Golden Horseshoe of Ontario, which includes Toronto. And because of the aforementioned politics, it ends up doing a lot of work in smaller cities instead of the necessary work in the Toronto Census Area. It’s taken years to get Presto integrated across GO Transit, which is operated by Metrolinx, and the TTC, operated by Toronto, as one example of the inanity. Of course, the Presto Pass is an inferior payment technology compared to that which exists in other major countries which actually take transit seriously.
Because of the provincial and federal funding dynamics and lack of revenue options available to the city, transit is perpetually underfunded. Probably 20% of all transit dollars in Canada should be flowing into Toronto, but that’s political suicide, so Toronto is underfunded compared to other cities. Of course, transit is underfunded across Canada, so this is a double-whammy. The subway in Toronto was designed for a 1950s city of perhaps a million, not a city of 3 million or a Census Area population of 6 million.
Unsurprisingly, the city that generates 20% of Canada’s total GDP in 0.007% of Canada’s landmass has higher housing prices than most other cities in Canada. The only comparison is Vancouver, which is a globally desirable city for living and owning property and a retirement and leisure destination for the Canadian and global moneyed class. And unlike Germany, Canada doesn’t have a national strategy of maintaining housing affordability. With the Trudeau Liberals, we just received the broad strokes of part of one. And unlike Singapore, Canada’s housing market and hence Toronto’s weren’t designed by intelligent people with foresight, but grew organically in a messy, patchwork mess of regulations.
No teeth in urban planning
While there are bright and committed people working in urban planning and design in Toronto, they didn’t get the support and the power that Vancouver’s planners received. As a result, well-known precepts of creating livable cities are regularly ignored in Toronto. The Gardiner Expressway cuts off most of Toronto from the water front, and the Tory administration decided to leave that in place. Condo buildings go up as walls with no urban facilities and commercial outlets at ground level, and no pedestals which would allow more light to the street and a reduction of Venturi-effect wind tunnels. The GTA amalgamation meant that many intelligent people spent 15 years trying to harmonize zoning instead of necessarily shifting zoning and urban design to modern precepts. Every decision was political and basic services like snow removal still vary between the former cities which make up Toronto today.
Inner suburban blight
With the downtown core increasingly affluent and expensive, poorer people, often recent immigrants, can’t afford to live there. Instead, they live in the inner suburbs and often in the far outer suburbs. The inner suburbs are poorly served by transit, have a lot of people who depend on cars and aren’t seeing many of the benefits of Toronto’s booming economy. They are susceptible to populist messages against modern urban transit solutions and for cars. Rob Ford rode a wave of suburban anger and resentment to power in 2010, and David Miller’s Transit City plan which would have served the inner suburbs well was demonized, contributing to the defeat of Ford’s competitors.
These systemic challenges aren’t going away. They lead to boneheaded stupidities like the one-stop, $3.35 billion Scarborough subway. They lead to walls of condos on the waterfront with few local services. They lead to a huge chunk of land in downtown being devoted to a rarely used baseball stadium. They lead to intractable political delays in obvious transit fixes like the Downtown Relief Line.
Despite this, Toronto manages and sometimes manages to excel. Most recently, they quietly made King Street through the Financial District a streetcar, bicycling and walking-only corridor. Cars are required to turn right at pretty much every corner, not drive through. This has eliminated congestion and allowed the 65,000 streetcar users in that corridor daily much faster transit times. Total commuter throughput is up.
And there are the separated Bloor Street bike lanes. They finally made it into plan. This year’s trial was a success and they will be made permanent.
Both are significant urban planning wins. I’m amazed either made it through. With the strong potential for an anti-transit, anti-cycling, pro-car, populist Conservative leader to be elected in June, they may be the last transportation wins that Toronto sees for a few years.