Another View

Big-city traffic talk on the cottage wharf

Torontonians themselves—not just country mice—are joining in the chorus of ‘how can anyone live in this place?’

Charles Gordon August 25 1997
Another View

Big-city traffic talk on the cottage wharf

Torontonians themselves—not just country mice—are joining in the chorus of ‘how can anyone live in this place?’

Charles Gordon August 25 1997

Big-city traffic talk on the cottage wharf

Another View

Torontonians themselves—not just country mice—are joining in the chorus of ‘how can anyone live in this place?’

Charles Gordon

The cottage buzz this summer is not just mosquitoes. The zebra mussel is big in central Ontario, having attained the status of pest, after years of being only a threat. The little creatures cling to boats and the underside of docks, and they cut the feet of those who step upon them hard. In years ahead, they will do worse. People talk about the absence of natural predators for them Geopard mussels, perhaps?) and they mutter about the big boats that brought them to small lakes. Most things at the cottage are the fault of big boats.

Except for Jet Skis—or as they are generically called, personal watercraft, whose buzz is louder by the day. This year, the talk is more action-oriented, with the growing realization that the personal watercraft is not just a fad but an industry, and a growing one. The story is told of the folks at one lake who organized an effective boycott threat: they told their marina operator that he would lose them as customers if he sold or serviced personal watercraft. It worked.

Similar tactics are being discussed, along with the usual philosophical questions—does one group have the right to deprive another group of its toys? On the other hand, does the other group of people have the right to deprive the first (and larger) group of its peace and quiet?

The main buzz at the lake, however, is not about that. It is about big-city traffic. There are now actual, documented cases of real people who have moved out of Toronto because of the traffic, and there are many more people still living in the city who admit to being intimidated by it. Their horror stories are told on the docks.

This is new. It doesn’t seem that long ago, although it is probably at least a decade, that the big talk in Toronto was real estate—how hard it was to find an affordable place to live, how much one made selling, how much one lost buying. Anyone caught complaining about the traffic in those days would be sniffily dismissed as someone who didn’t really belong in town. If you were a big-city kind of person, you would know the shortcuts, the alternate routes, the secret parking spots.

Now the fun is over. It was always tough to get out of the city, particularly on the weekend and much cottage conversation derived from that, but it was more or less accepted as part of the price you paid for the advantages of living in a large city. Also, it was predictable: it always happened at more or less the same times on the same weekends; you could avoid it, if you had the flexibility, by leaving early or leaving late.

Today’s situation is different. It is not that it is hard to get to Muskoka from downtown Toronto, although it is; now, it is hard to get from downtown Toronto to anywhere in Toronto, or from anywhere in Toronto to anywhere else in Toronto. Real Torontonians

are complaining, not just country mice blundering from construction zone to construction zone in search of the Gardiner Expressway (which is mostly closed). Real Torontonians, the kind of people who would drive the Don Valley Parkway at rush hour just to get the circulation going—real Torontonians are now joining in the chorus of “how can anyone live in this place?”

Of course, people can. It is not necessary to be in a car to do everything in the big city. Public transit is good, although hardly cheap. Feet are good, too. It is only when people venture into their cars that the frustration sets in, along with the noise, the fumes and the temper.

Failing a miracle or intelligent government action, whichever comes first, it will get worse. And not only in Toronto. Montreal traffic is no picnic. Vancouver’s downtown is crowded with cars. The cities are becoming less livable for their residents, who flee to the suburbs and then drive back in each morning, making their own contributions to the pollution and the aggravation.

“What is to be done?” they ask on the dock, in the lulls between personal watercraft. The obvious answer, the one that has been tried and has failed again and again, is to do more for the cars—build more expressways, wider streets, bigger parking garages. But the cars, as everyone who has seen it knows, are never satisfied. They fill the expressways, the streets, the parking garages, and then want more. The city is more crowded with cars and more people leave it.

It is fun, if you are a fan of gentle farce, to watch cities attempt to solve the problem without actually doing anything decisive. They put little concrete islands in the middle of intersections and make the sidewalks jut out strangely, calling it traffic calming; they change streets to oneway and then back to two-way; they allow parking only on alternate Wednesdays and establish special lanes to be used by cars containing three people and a brown dog. Meanwhile, the traffic, like a stream influenced only by the pull of gravity, goes where it will go.

To make the traffic go away, one has to make the cars go away. In the long run, doing nothing may accomplish that. Let the traffic situation worsen dramatically and people will begin avoiding it. They may, however, choose to avoid it by leaving town altogether.

The alternative to doing nothing is to show leadership and courage. Making the cars go away means putting people on buses and subways, which means making them affordable, reducing fares instead of increasing them all the time. It may cost, but it is the only way to give cities back to people.

Toronto, of course, was known for that, for being a people city, a city that worked. For the most part, Canada’s other cities fit that description as well. All of them can be ruined by letting the cars take over. They are like zebra mussels and nothing eats them either.