The war on the car continues (but how?)

Until recently, residents and visitors to Toronto have been able to observe a strange phenomenon. Right downtown, just behind the provincial legislature (here), there is a very beautiful park (called Queen’s Park). The surprising thing about this park was that, on a typical weekday during the summer, even during lunch hour, you could walk through this park and find practically nobody in it – no students from the University of Toronto, despite the fact that it is almost part of the campus, and no workers from the nearby government buildings eating lunch.

There was a simple reason for this. It all came down to urban planning – in this case, bad urban planning. Until recently, Queen’s Park was a typical example of what I tend to think of as “1960’s urban planning” — the time before people really figured out how cars work (or the way that cars affect the dynamic of pedestrian flow). The problem with Queen’s Park is that it was entirely cut off from the surrounding city by cars. The park and the legislature are essentially in an oval, and until recently there were only three points at which pedestrians could safely cross the street, in order to enter that oval.

Meanwhile, the streets along the oval have no parking, and in most cases there are no buildings facing the curb. There are also three lanes going either direction (like a roundabout, with three lanes southbound on the west side, three lanes northbound on the east side). Back in the 60’s, it seems to have been assumed that if you just posted a sign saying “40 km/hr maximum” then cars would proceed at that pace. In reality, whenever frustrated commuters see a piece of open road, they hit the gas as hard as they can. So the typical car going around Queen’s Park is usually moving somewhere between 60-80 km/hr. This is completely stupid, since in a downtown area it just means that they get to stop at their next traffic light one or two seconds earlier than they otherwise would have. But it is enough to make it positively dangerous throughout much of the day for pedestrians to cross the street anywhere but at the traffic lights. As a result, people were effectively cut off from the park.

As urban planning became more sophisticated over the years, part of the long-term agenda has been to eliminate the various absurdities that were inadvertantly created during the period of “60’s planning.” After all, what is the point of having a beautiful park in the middle of a busy city that no one ever uses? And what is the point of having a two-lane street broaden out into three lanes for just two blocks, before getting pinched back into a two-lane street? (It doesn’t actually move traffic through any faster, it just encourages speeding over those two blocks.)

Toronto used to be full of such absurdities. St. George Street, which cuts right through the downtown campus of University of Toronto, used to have two lanes going either direction, and had only one traffic light between College St and Bloor St. As a result, it was a preferred thoroughfare for commuters, and cars used to go about 80km/hr up and down down it. This made it sometimes almost impossible to cross (cars in Toronto by-and-large do not yield to pedestrians). I can recall some days waiting several minutes to get across the street, just to get from one class to another.

Having cars blasting through the middle of a university campus at 80km/hr is obviously absurd, even intolerable. It was only a matter of time before the university did something about it. The street was completely redone about 15 years ago (good description, with pictures, here). The number of lanes was reduced to one in either direction, two new traffic lights were installed, and the road was repaved in a way that produced the visual impression of about a dozen crosswalks. This solved the problem almost immediately.

Something similar has been going on at Queen’s Park. Two new traffic lights have been installed in the past few years (I haven’t been paying that much attention, they just sort of popped up one day). And now more recently, the corner of Hoskin Ave. and Queen’s Park has been redone. Anyone who has ever walked past the University of Toronto law school will be familiar with this corner – because the way it used to be was absurd. Most importantly, the cars turning off Queen’s Park onto Hoskin (and thus, into campus) had a dedicated right hand turn lane that was exempt from the traffic light (meaning they didn’t have to come to a stop on red), and there was a large sign instructing pedestrians to yield to the cars. This is, again, right in the middle of a university campus! So you would sometimes see 30 or 40 pedestrians standing around, waiting several minutes for a chance to cross the street as the cars went whipping by. (To compound the absurdity, the cars turning right ran straight into a traffic light, a half-block down the road, so there was no real benefit to them from the whole arrangement.)

One day I came to work to see city crews ripping up the whole thing. When they put it back together, the dedicated right-hand turn lane for cars was gone, replaced by a big fat chunk of grass. A standard traffic light had been installed, and just past the light, the number of lanes for cars was reduced by one (with what looks like a separated bike lane being installed). Here’s a picture:


This is a huge increase in pedestrian-friendliness. But perhaps more importantly, it is also a perceived decrease in car-friendliness. (I think it is worth emphasizing that this is mainly a matter of perception. In a downtown area, where roads are essentially at capacity, and all movement is metered by traffic lights, cars essentially have a fixed speed, and there is nothing an individual driver can do to go faster. All of the aggressive driving you see, such as passing, is largely based on an illusion. It may mean that one person gets to the next red light a few seconds before the other, but then they both wind up stopped at the light, and so the several-second gain is immediately lost.)

In any case, what I find interesting about the whole business is that it is occurring during year four of the Ford administration in Toronto. Rob Ford was elected on the basis of a promise to end “the war on the car.” In other words, a large portion of his support came from car drivers, who are subject to the perception that they are slowly being squeezed out of the roadways, or order to make room for bikes, pedestrians and streetcars. In other words, the kind of changes that have been being made around Queen’s Park the past few years are precisely what Rob Ford was elected to put a stop to.

So the question that is foremost in my mind is, how does this sort of planning and roadwork proceed, pretty much independent of the preferences of elected politicians? I know that Toronto has a “weak mayor” system, so Rob Ford is not in a position to unilaterally boss around the planning department. At the same time, the mayor has enormous say over the composition of committees, and so with his allies is in a position to exercise considerable influence.

My suspicion is that the planning department simply operates with an enormous amount of autonomy, and that projects like this are “below the radar” of elected officials. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that someone in the planning department figured out 20 years ago that they needed to do something about Queen’s Park, and that this has been moving down the list of “things to do” for a long time. Elections can either speed up or slow down the movement along the list, but they are not in a position to change it in a fundamental way. (Also on the list will be getting rid of the overpass at Wellesley and Hart House Circle and turning it into a level intersection – we’ll see when that happens.)

Furthermore, I think that this is a pretty systematic feature of the way governments operate at all levels. Policy is essentially the outcome of negotiation between the executive and legislative branch. When one turns to “the literature,” however, for some account of how these things work, or what could render such arrangements legitimate, one finds practically nothing. One can find an enormous literature on the “countermajoritarian” role of the judiciary, yet practically nothing about the executive. (And yet, for instance, an institution like the central bank is designed to operate with pretty much the same degree of autonomy as the Supreme Court, and it also plays a clearly countermajoritarian role. Political theory, however, has practically nothing to say about it.)

This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot – one of that major reasons that I’ve developed an interest in the “philosophy of public administration.” I find the literature in this area to be amazingly deficient, although perhaps I’m overlooking something. Suggestions for further reading would be most welcome…


The war on the car continues (but how?) — 5 Comments

  1. Alan Blinder, a former Vice Chairman of the Fed’s Board of Governors, has written much about these issues as they relate to central banking. Keywords: “central bank independence”, “central bank democracy”, “monetary policy committee”, “central bank credibility”.

    In his article “Is Government Too Political?”, Blinder argues that the arguments for Congress delegating monetary policy to an independent central bank also apply to delegating tax policy to unelected experts. This is part of his larger discussion about elected officials and institutions delegating power to unelected experts. This is probably the article most relevant to your concerns.

  2. Hi,

    Interesting article, thank you. Further suggested readings: governmentality studies; cultural studies; sociology of translation actor-network theory, amongst others. It is not political science mainstream for sure, but these approaches have looked at all sort of practices that shape our political landscape, above and over the legislative authorities.


  3. I had also been puzzled by the fact that there seem to have been many more (and better) bike lanes created during the Ford years than during the Miller years (though I confess not to have looked at actual numbers). My conjecture was that Toronto planning is often driven by local councillors and not by some vision of the mayor or of another body. This would also explain why we still have parking in major streets such as Bloor and College.

  4. All good observations. I pass through Queen’s park onto the U of T campus everyday, by foot or bicycle. In addition to the issues with the park, I think there is an interesting message that the legislature is essentially surrounded by a moat of a driveway. It seems to me that there is a message there – that the legislature is intended to be accessed by private vehicle, and not connected to the city and accessible by people on foot.

  5. At the cycle toronto skills swap, city staff were told that the cycling goals in the last 4 years were to improve the existing infrastructure downtown and to grow the trails network. No new infrastructure beyond Downtown. That’s what happened. In other cases though in the midtown area: City staff have consistently refused to address the Bathurst/Beltline crossing – proposing ‘no change’ in spite of apparent initial political agreement. Similarily a request to remove the cowgate barriers in Oriole Park by the councilor was met with a NO by city staff.
    I think more the issue here is that politicians will rarely if ever say an outright NO. They will say a Yes, or a “we’ll study it” or “That’s a great/interesting idea” or “I’m really behind that” or whatever. But unless they actually champion it, announce the work they are doing on it in their newsletter, bring it forward in a motion, follow it through, it really is as if the NO was said. This is why its important to extract an action agreed by a certain timeline and then the applicant really has the onus to follow up.