As anyone who lives in or frequents Toronto’s inner-city can attest, the place is over-run with human activity. The word “congestion” is probably over-used in urban affairs, and it still feels tainted by its long association with slum clearances, but it is the word that comes to mind when travelling about the city’s lower downtown these days. Walking is usually the fastest way to get around – certainly faster than streetcar, taxi, or automobile travel, though perhaps not faster than bicycling for anyone willing to face the risks – though walking can be frustrating, and even dangerous, when the sidewalks fill up like rush-hour subway cars.
Congestion-related problems appear in the local news almost every day. Most recently is the alarming increase in motor vehicle accidents involving cyclists and pedestrians. But others crop up regularly: unreliable electricity supply, insufficient public libraries and schools, conflicts over land use (dogs vs children, residents vs clubs), and of course the endless problem of surface public transit which, in truth, barely functions. At times the situation seems perversely amusing, but at other times truly alarming – deleterious consequences multiply, and policy solutions are nowhere to be found.
Viewing this through the lens of history reveals an intriguing, and perhaps rather surprising, parallel between recent growth in the inner-city and postwar expansion of the suburbs. On the surface, of course, they reflect population migrations in opposite directions, but at the root of both is a conviction, pervasive in the popular mindset of the time, that these migrations would yield a better urban life. Continue reading