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Toronto's 'city of the future' is being built next to a relic of our past: Elliott

This is one of the vision's Sidewalk Labs has released for Toronto's eastern waterfront.
This is one of the vision's Sidewalk Labs has released for Toronto's eastern waterfront.

You’re standing at Toronto’s eastern waterfront years from today, looking north. In front of you, the “city of the future” announced last week by Alphabet — Google’s parent company — has taken shape.

As described in the vision document released by Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, the Quayside neighbourhood will offer a “world-class level of car-free urban mobility.”

Light rail lines will connect its residents — at least 80 per cent of whom won’t own cars — to the rest of the city, supplemented with self-driving electric shuttles, car shares and taxis. The plan even suggests aerial transit, with personal sky gondolas whisking people above the lake.

Most people, though, will just walk or bike — incredibly, Sidewalk Labs says they have plans to mitigate weather impacts, so active transportation can be more practical and pleasant every day of the year.

Exciting, right? A hell of a vision.

But then imagine you look a little bit beyond all this futuristic urbanism and see something very different just to the north: an elevated concrete expressway.

And not just any elevated concrete expressway. This expressway — the eastern stretch of the Gardiner — will have been freshly rebuilt at a cost of more than one billion dollars.

The scene gets even more ridiculous in the off-chance Toronto lands Amazon’s much-ballyhooed second headquarters. Several of the proposed locations listed in the GTA bid to the tech company would put their futuristic campus within spitting distance of Toronto’s rebuilt expressway.

It must be noted here that neither Amazon nor Alphabet seem to value access to elevated concrete expressways.

Amazon’s RFP document instead highlights its desire for “sidewalks, bike lanes, trams, metro, bus, light rail, train and additional creative options” for mobility.

Alphabet, meanwhile, calls out the Gardiner directly: “It is a relic of an earlier time,” says their vision document, “when the waterfront was synonymous with industrial expanse and good urban design meant planning for cars.”

While Alphabet is careful to note that they believe the effects of the Gardiner can be managed through public realm improvements, nowhere is it described as anything like a desirable asset.

And why would it be? The justification for rebuilding the 2.4-kilometre section of the Gardiner between Jarvis Street and the Don Valley Parkway was thin when Toronto City Council voted to do it in 2015.

Removing the highway would have saved almost $500 million in lifestyle costs and unlocked an extra 12 acres of land for development. The only downside? The 5,200 people who use the Gardiner East to get into downtown Toronto every morning would have seen their travel times increase by an estimated three-to-five minutes.

The justification will be even thinner in the years and decades to come, when better mobility options for walking, cycling and transit, coupled with self-driving electric vehicles and other technologies like the ones put forth in Alphabet’s proposal, make elevated highways even more of an anachronism.

Yes, the Gardiner East debate was settled two years ago, but Toronto City Council frequently revisits past decisions when presented with new information.

Alphabet’s plan — and the potential for more like just like it — qualifies as new information.

Let’s take this opportunity to think about whether Toronto really wants to build the city of the future next to a relic from the past.

This post was originally published at on 2017-10-23T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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