The Don Valley Parkway was designed to carry 60,000 cars daily; today, that number tops 100,000. Here’s what we can do to avoid apocalyptic gridlock.
Drivers on the Don Valley Parkway are all too familiar with the meaning of gridlock. When it first opened in the 1960s, the DVP was originally designed to carry 60,000 cars per day; today, that number has risen to 100,000, and congestion will only get worse as the GTA’s population grows. Plus, it’s hard to enjoy the stunning views of the Don Valley when you’re wasting gas while idling and cursing at other motorists in yet another traffic snarl.
Invasive surgery is needed to fix the Don Valley and a charrette known as The Parkway of Least Resistance (POLR) has put forth an intriguing idea of how to relieve this clogged artery. The audacious plan envisions transforming the DVP into a green space with settling ponds, acres of new trees, a rapid busway—and no cars. The POLR plan will be on display at the Evergreen Brick Works Move expo until October.
“Our goal was to explore outside the box but, at the same time, come out with a real solution, and I think that’s what we’ve done,” says Roberto Chiotti, design lead of POLR and principal of Larkin Architect Ltd. “We looked at the way people dealt with ravines and major natural assets in cities and transportation options, and took from the best of those.”
To replace driving in the corridor, POLR proposes a portage busway—i.e., a pair of guided bus lanes built on the existing DVP. The remaining four lanes will be planted, while cycling and walking paths run though the valley. The plan is designed to create “social estuaries” where people can slow down, relax, and absorb the sounds of nature.
“The creative transformation of major infrastructural projects which are half-century old at this point are always really critical in the evolution in cities,” says Melanie Hare, partner at Urban Strategies, a Toronto urban planning firm not involved with the POLR study. “I also think it’s an alignment with the changing nature of the way we think of the way people move through cities and within cities.”
Here, we explore four possibilities for the future of the DVP—and their estimated costs and carbon footprints—as determined by the POLR team.
Scenario 1: Do nothing
Pros: No upfront cost.
Cons: Does nothing to solve the rising traffic problem. Annual maintenance (currently estimated at $750,000) will become more costly over time.
Can we do it?: “The status quo really isn’t an option,” says Chiotti. The DVP is already well over capacity, and the GTA’s growing population will only add more cars to the road, resulting in even worse gridlock. Increased traffic also degrades the surrounding environment with harmful emissions; the DVP currently emits 405 metric tonnes of CO2 per day.
Congestion can be alleviated by displacing people into GO Transit using the rapid busways. But, to be truly effective, these lanes need to be continuous and fully isolated from road traffic, and they currently are not.
Scenario 2: Make the DVP a double-decker highway
Pros: Doubles the vehicular capacity the DVP. In the short term, the POLR team estimates the number of cars using the DVP would increase from 100,000 vehicles daily to 120,000; based on a statistical standard of 1.2 passengers per car, this would amount to 144,000 passengers being moved each day.
Cons: Very high construction costs (approximately $50 million per kilometre) and maintenance costs (approximately $1.5 million per year), not to mention the deeper carbon footprint that comes with an increased vehicle load (an additional 82 metric tonnes of CO2 per day).
Can we do it?: There are other double-decker highways in North America, like California’s Embarcadero Freeway and New York’s West Side Elevated Highway. But while these marvels of engineering move a lot of vehicles, they’re not suitable for forested valleys like the DVP. Even if we were to build another deck, it would involve shutting down the entire highway for years. The idea of adding another level was brought to City Hall during the Mel Lastman era by a private company; after a day-long debate, city council concluded it wasn’t in the city’s interest.
“The big question of the day was would we really want twice as many cars?” recounts Rod McPhail, director of transportation planning for the City. “That’s the key: Where would twice as many cars go, and would we really want that in the first place?”
The last thing anyone wants is more cars coming downtown looking for a place to park; ideally, visitors should travel to the core by transit.
“Certainly, I wouldn’t think that doubling up the Don Valley would be anything that would ever be supported by the public or, for that matter, the City itself,” says McPhail.
Scenario 3: The DVP subway line
Pros: Would lure drivers onto the TTC and lower carbon footprint by an estimated 125 metric tonnes of CO2 per day. And the total number of people moved daily through the combination of driving and transit would be comparable to the double-decker option.
Cons: Very expensive to build (approximately $128 million per kilometre) and maintain ($122 million per year).
Can we do it? While it has some advantages over the double-decker plan, the subway proposal still comes with a heavy price tag that our cash-strapped city can’t afford.
Subways are intended to support land use and development, and are best used in high-density areas. There’s just no sense in building a subway in an area like the Don Valley, along which there is unlikely to ever be any commercial development.
“Subways are built to give people options to get to and from their jobs or to and from their residence, and this wouldn’t do it,’” says McPhail.
Another problem: When building a subway underneath a water table—as would be the case in the Don Valley—the cost becomes even greater, as you’re fighting against nature to build and maintain the structure. A DVP subway line is really nothing but a pipe dream.
Scenario 4: The Parkway of Least Resistance
Pros: Boasts the lowest cost per kilometre ($23 million) and carbon footprint (140 metric tonnes of CO2 per day) of the four plans, while moving the most people—as many as 190,000 per hour, Chiotti estimates. The decreased environmental impact will improve air and water quality, while natural elements like ponds, rivers, trees, and wildlife habitats will be restored. Maintenance costs ($1 million per kilometre annually) are also lower when compared to the other plans.
Cons: Drivers can no longer use the DVP.
Can we do it?: Building the POLR would be a monumental undertaking involving decades of hard work, and generating the dollars to do it would involve fundraising on many fronts. It’s an ambitious plan that would radically change the dynamic of the corridor.
“To do something like this would be a catalyst for change on so many different levels,” says James Roche, director of parks, design, and construction for Waterfront Toronto and team expert for the POLR project. “Imagine all those communities that right now have their backyards against this space—this becomes more of a positive space that would change all those different communities.”
The DVP was designed in a different era, when the car was king. And while McPhail suggests that a freeway like the DVP would not get green-lit in today’s more eco- and transit-conscious political climate, a pro-car mentality still lingers in Rob Ford’s City Hall. So, while attractive, the POLR plan may be a little too good to be true for the time being.
“The more practical way of looking at this is that the DVP is there, for better or worse, so how can we use it better?” McPhail says. “You really can’t ever take away something as major as the Don Valley Parkway unless you replace it with a good alternative.”
In the meantime, the best thing the City and province can do is improve GO Transit service: This means more trains and buses, and more dedicated lanes that don’t require buses to cross auto traffic. It might not be the Parkway of Least Resistance, but it’s a more immediately realistic way to get Toronto moving.