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The Future of the Gardiner Expressway

I. Background

For over 50 years, the Gardiner Expressway is a highway that has served automobile commuters in and out of Toronto. However, the elevated portion of the highway downtown has sparked considerable debate on whether to demolish it or whether to maintain and repair it. On one hand, the highway acts as an informal barrier between the waterfront and the rest of downtown Toronto, hindering potential development in the vicinity. On the other hand, the Gardiner Expressway is a vital transportation link that connects other suburbs and surrounding areas into the downtown area and with traffic congestion already a problem in Toronto, removing the Gardiner may negatively affect travel in the city. This report will clarify the various arguments and proposals.

In 2009, an environmental assessment was undertaken to decide the best option on the future of the Gardiner Expressway. The EA included four main options (City of Toronto, Waterfront Toronto, Dillon Consulting Limited, Perkins+Will, Morrison Hershfield, 2009). The first option would simply be to keep the elevated highway the way it is. That is, keeping the elevated highway and maintaining the infrastructure in a "state of good repair." The second option would demolish the elevated portion downtown and replace it with a major arterial road at-grade. A third option would "replace" the Gardiner by removing the existing structure and move the highway either underground or over the CN Rail line. The fourth option keeps the existing structure, but improving it by adding environmentally-friendly features and improving pedestrian access around the highway.

The attitude towards highways in Toronto is a factor to consider. Throughout recent history in Toronto, residents have opposed highway projects since the 1970s. The most notable cancellation is the Spadina Expressway, which was planned to be built from the present Allen Road Expressway down south towards the Gardiner. The cancellation marked the end of highway construction in Toronto (Robinson, 2011, page 320). It was a time when urban planning in Toronto changed from Rational Comprehensive Planning where planners were in full control, to an era where citizens had an increasing influential voice because modernist planning was considered "anti-democratic (Sandercock, 1998, p. 170)." This negative attitude towards highway development in Toronto will likely contribute to favouritism towards removing the Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto.

On the contrary, Toronto's road network is also something to consider. Along with the Don Valley Parkway, the Gardiner Expressway is one of only two highways that connect to the downtown core. The Spadina Expressway and the Scarborough Expressway were meant to support a unifying highway network connecting the downtown area with the outer suburbs. Both were cancelled due to opposition from residents in Toronto. However, since those proposed highways have been scrapped, both the Gardiner and Don Valley Parkway are taking in vehicle capacity far beyond their intended usage, receiving vehicle traffic meant for the expressways that were cancelled. Therefore, by removing the elevated portion of the Gardiner Expressway, it will put more pressure on Toronto's already-congested road network. Also, the proposed section of the Gardiner to be removed connects directly to the Don Valley Parkway, and by removing this portion, it would remove an important highway connection in the city.

II. Problems and Issues

The removal of the Gardiner Expressway downtown is controversial today because of the highway's decaying state and rising maintenance costs. For several months, chunks of concrete from the highway have fallen down, some even landing on vehicles. This has proposed a dangerous scenario for motorists and pedestrians walking and driving below the elevated Gardiner. Choosing to either fully restoring and repairing the Gardiner Expressway, or choosing to demolish it altogether would decrease costs, compared to short-term repairs.

III. Context and Perspectives

Removing the elevated portion of Gardiner Expressway is a very polarizing issue, with those supporting and opposing the demolition. Organizations such as Toronto Waterfront Viaduct and Waterfront Toronto support demolishing the Gardiner. An argument is that the highway is a hindrance to residential development that potentially could be built on the land the highway is currently occupying. For example, those lands may also be used for "use" value such as public parks and spaces (Young, 2010, p. 32). Population and developmental growth in Toronto has been increasing, especially in the downtown core where many residential condominiums are being constructed. Removing the Gardiner downtown can bring economic benefits to the city from subsequent development and tourist sites.

There is no formal group that opposes removing the Gardiner Expressway in downtown. However, there are some city councillors and members of provincial parliament that do not support removing it, mainly for road transportation issues. Again, the proposed section connects directly with the Don Valley Parkway, and removing an important highway connection can create more traffic congestion as a result. Therefore, traveling in and out of the downtown core with an automobile would be less convenient and slower.

What hasn't been mentioned in previous reports is the fact that removing the Gardiner can negatively affect other modes of transportation. While it's obvious that removing the Gardiner would likely create traffic congestion initially, the effects on public transit have been neglected and overlooked. When the city of London, England initiated the Congestion Charge Zone, many former road users took public transit to downtown instead because they could not afford the extra costs of driving downtown. Subsequently, bus ridership in London increased by 18 percent in the first year that the congestion charge was implemented (Santos, 2008, p. 192). The same results could happen in Toronto as well, where removing the Gardiner will detract road users to take public transit instead. While this is beneficial to city policy of increasing public transit ridership, the question is if our transit infrastructure can handle the sudden influx, since the Toronto Transit Commission system is already operating at high ridership levels.

IV. Recommended Course of Action

The recommended course of action is to demolish the elevated portion of the Gardiner Expressway and merge it with Lake Shore Boulevard. However, Toronto's public transit system must first be able to handle the new passengers that would likely switch to this mode of transportation, either by increasing service or by creating new rapid transit lines.

The reasons for removing the elevated portion of the Gardiner Expressway are far too beneficial to ignore. With the city already handling a large backlog of road repairs, it would likely become too cost-prohibitive in the long-term to maintain and repair the elevated expressway, rather than removing the structure altogether and replacing it with an at-grade arterial road. It's also clear that many citizens in the downtown area of Toronto oppose highway development or maintenance, as witnessed with the cancellation of the Spadina Expressway. The waterfront is becoming an attractive new area. The Distillery District and the Harbourfront Centre are examples of this. They both have attracted developers, tourists and residents alike, bringing economic growth to the city.

The third and fourth options are not alternatives that would be beneficial. The third option of replacing the highway and building a new one over the CN rail line or underground, would be just as expensive and costly to build and maintain as the existing elevated expressway. In Boston, the "Big Dig" was a large highway project that included burying the Central Artery highway, building a bridge over the Charles River and a tunnel connecting to the airport. Altogether, the Big Dig is expected to cost $22 billion, which has put the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority into financial burden (Haynes & Whipples, 2009, p. 73). This shows that it would be far too costly to replace the highway or bury it underground. With the fourth option, "greening" the highway would not solve the problems it is currently facing, which is becoming a barrier between downtown and the waterfront, and a safety hazard due to crumbling and aging infrastructure.

Subsequent traffic congestion may increase around the waterfront temporarily. However, a study was done in 1998 by Phil Goodwin, Sally Cairns and Carmen Hass-Klau on the phenomenon on "disappearing traffic." They concluded that "taking away roadspace from general traffic can cause overall traffic levels to reduce (Goodwin, Cairns, Atkins, 2002, p. 16)." While this phenomenon is still highly debated and contested, it's likely a similar situation would likely occur if the Gardiner is removed downtown, where drivers will find alternative methods of travel, such as public transit or traveling at a different time of day.

Several highway removal projects in other cities have been completed with success. In San Francisco, the Embarcadero Freeway was demolished due to damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Initially, there was concern on traffic congestion if the freeway was removed, but not only has traffic accustomed, the city has been able to beautify the waterfront as a major tourist destination. This shows that highway removal can benefit high demand, high development potential areas. Our city can mimic those positive results, which is why this report recommends removing the elevated portion of the Gardiner Expressway downtown.


Atkins, S., Cairns, S., & Goodwin, P. (2002). Disappearing traffic? The story so far. Municipal Engineer, 151(1), 13-22.

City of Toronto, Dillon Consulting Limited, Hershfield, M., Perkins+Will, Waterfront Toronto. (2009). Gardiner Expressway and Lake Shore Boulevard Reconfiguration (EA Terms of Reference). Toronto, Ontario.

Goodwin, P., Hass-Klau, C., & Cairns, S. (1998). Traffic Impact of Highway Capacity Reductions: Assessment of the Evidence. London: Landor Publishing.

Haynes, W., & Whipple, A. (2009). Transportation megaprojects: comparing project management and oversight approaches: three recent, well-known initiatives--Boston's Big Dig, Denver's International Airport, and Colorado's T-REX--vary in methods and success. The Public Manager, 38(2), 72-77.

Robinson, D. (2011). Modernism at a Crossroad: The Spadina Expressway Controversy in Toronto, Ontario ca. 1960-1971. Canadian Historical Review, 93(2), 295-322.

Sandercock, L. (1998). The death of modernist planning: Radical praxis for a postmodern age. In M. Douglass & J. Friedmann (Eds.), Cities for citizens: Planning and the rise of civil society in a global age (pp. 163-184). Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Santos, G. (2008, Annual). London congestion charging. Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs, 177-207.

Young, D. (2010). GEOGRAPHY 311: Canadian Urban Development (Study Guide). Athabasca: Athabasca University.

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