Taming Traffic: Thinking Outside the Gridlock

Willowdale residents say our neighbourhood is a great place to live. Now if we could just do something about the traffic.  It gets worse each year. Major roads are congested; local streets are plagued by commuters speeding through our neighbourhoods.  Solutions are not simple, and the problems are not entirely fixable. But the situation can be improved.

Here are seven ways I’m working to address the problem, in no particular order of priority.

1. Develop a long-term transit plan.

A no brainer, if ever there was one. We need both subways and LRTs.  Where do we start?

Metrolinx, which oversees transit expansion in the GTA, recently named the construction of a “downtown relief” subway line as its highest priority.  I agree.  We also urgently need improvements to the Bloor station platform.

These projects are a priority for Willowdale because, as ridership increases, so does the congestion on the Yonge line. We’re not far away from having our main subway as gridlocked as the road above it.  For transit to be an attractive alternative to cars, our transit system needs to be fast, comfortable and reliable.

It will cost many billions of dollars to build a rapid transit network that reaches all parts of our city.  But it will cost many times that  in lost productivity and jobs if we don’t act  – in addition to a huge loss in quality of life as residents spend an ever-increasing part of their non-working hours commuting.

Council must gets its act together and, with recommendations from transit experts and consultation with the community, approve a long-term, funded plan to build rapid transit continuously over the next 25 years.

2. Build a Flyover Ramp at Yonge & 401.

The current route onto the eastbound 401 from Yonge Street is so outdated that the overflow traffic backs up an entire lane, almost to Sheppard.  A flyover or crossover ramp would, in effect, add back a third lane of southbound Yonge Street, greatly increasing  peak time capacity. The City is currently looking at the technical feasibility of such a ramp. I will continue to push for this project and examine other intersections where the lack of left turn capacity frustrates motorists making the turn and also blocks through lanes.

3. Increase Car Sharing and Car Pooling.

If people continue using cars at the current rate, an increase in traffic will become as certain as the growth in population.  Recently,  I reduced the number of parking spaces in a new development and, in place,  added three permanent at grade spots for car sharing companies.  Fewer parking spots means fewer people with cars will chose to locate there; and, if you can live steps from a subway that gets you to and from work with a Zipcar outside your door for weekend shopping and a visit to grandma, maybe fewer of us will choose to own a car.

There are now at least three reliable companies offering car sharing, each with very affordable rates for short term use. During the coming year, I will be working with these companies to promote this alternative.  I’ll also be looking into the feasibility of setting up car pooling programs in clusters of condos.

4. Make our neighbourhoods more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

In addition to reducing traffic, walking is good for your health and helps you get to know your neighbours.  To promote walking through our community, we need pleasant pedestrian routes and safe places to cross busy streets.  We need to fill in some missing links in our sidewalk network; in some locations we need more stop signs and traffic signals.  Willowdale also needs a cycling network that will be used for travel  within the community as well as biking to and from work.

5. Create destinations within the community.

Another way to avoid some traffic is to create more local destinations: community centres, parks, child care centres, shopping, restaurants and entertainment. Last year we opened three new parks; this year I expect to add two more and expand a third.  We’ve got new schools and child care centres under construction.  Restaurants have become more plentiful and more varied.  Cultura, the Friday night summer festival I operate in Mel Lastman Square, gives residents a major event to walk to, and more community initiatives are planned for 2013!

 6. Control Development

I was first elected to Council in 1991, just in time to warn that the City’s North York Centre Plan contained much too much density and would lead to major traffic problems. At the time, nobody wanted to believe it.  This is one time I wish I had been wrong but if anything, the traffic is even worse than I predicted. 

Decisions made more than 20 years ago are still driving development.  Once land has been designated for high density in the Official Plan, it is virtually impossible to stop its eventual redevelopment.  But some land owners and speculators near major streets are still pushing for much more redevelopment than was approved 25 years ago (much of which has not yet been built).  Along Yonge Street from Cummer/Drewry to Steeles, city planners are looking at extending the North York Centre Plan; on Sheppard Avenue West, some property owners and speculators are trying to establish a new high density area – against the advice of city planning staff; on Finch Avenue, some developers want to ignore the city’s planning rules and build much larger and taller buildings than are allowed.

We already have had more development than the area can handle, and under the Official Plan from 25 years ago, much more can still be built. I do not believe we should be loosening the rules to allow more development, nor should we be creating any new development areas that will make an already intolerable traffic situation even worse. For more on this or to get involved, contact my office.

7. Reform the Ontario Municipal Board

Most people wouldn’t be able to name a single member of the Ontario Municipal Board but this unelected body makes the final decisions on all development issues.  Not your elected Councillor, not City Council, not the professional planning staff, not the community they serve. The provincially-appointed O.M.B. has rarely met a development it didn’t like.  The O.M.B. has approved residential developments where the City – both politicians and planners – wanted commercial space. 

This is important because residential motorists leave the area in the morning and return in the evening; commercial traffic does the opposite. A proper balance would relieve some congestion – in addition to providing jobs within the community so that many office workers could leave their car at home. Until the province abolishes or reforms the O.M.B., the City remains limited in what it can do to control development.