Toronto is Full

December 4th, 2012 by Potato

The housing bubble has spurred a huge increase in building over the last decade in Toronto. Massive new condo towers now crowd the lakefront, highway 7, Yonge St., and along the Sheppard subway. The suburbs have grown by leaps and bounds: not so long ago, Canada’s Wonderland was in some kind of magical hinterland north of the city. You had to drive by farms to get to it. Now, the McMansions are packed next to each other, fully covering the rolling hills nearly to King township. And it’s the same in the other directions too.

When I left Toronto, nearly 10 years ago, it was not exactly an empty place: the subway was standing room only for several hours of the day, and rush hour was a nightmare. Now, the subway is standing room only at most times. Most mornings the train is so full people can’t fit and have to wait for the next one as early as Sheppard (just the 3rd stop along the long trek downtown), and people are seriously getting up in my personal space. Traffic is a nightmare at almost all points during the day — even at 4 am, closing a few lanes on the 401 can cause backups — and forget about trying to nip out at 6 pm to grab some grub even up in North York or Markham; it’s gridlock until after 7. Toronto might not be quite as populous or densely populated as New York or Tokyo, but it’s up there, on par with Chicago.

I think New York is a bit of an outlier on our continent, and that it’s not necessarily the goal to shoot for; this isn’t Sim City, we don’t get points for cramming people in just because we can, and we’re not about to turn the CN tower into an arcology.

Toronto’s been growing at about 2% per year, almost double the population growth of Canada as a whole. That sounds like “modest” or “reasonable” growth, but it’s actually quite high for a city that’s as mature as Toronto is. That would mean that in 35 years, 11 million people would call the GTA home. I don’t know about you, but that sounds ludicrous to me. Importantly, consider whether our infrastructure capacity has also grown at 2%/year? I don’t have the data handy, but I recall a decade of service cuts at the TTC, and just a few gains on the GO; I don’t recall any major projects to expand our sewage or water-handling systems. The closest we’ve come is the bare minimum geographical expansion as the borders of the city grew.

And those other large American cities, according to Wikipedia, have not been growing at anywhere near that kind of rate: Chicago topped out somewhere in the 1930’s and has been fairly steady or even shrinking in size since then. New York and LA have been growing at a fraction of the rate the GTA is.

I think it’s time to accept that Toronto is full.

Though that in itself may be a great and lively debate, I think the real question is what to do once that fact is accepted. Toronto hasn’t been growing because of land grants and baby bonuses, and it makes no sense to try to set up a “Toronto quota” to forcibly keep people out. But perhaps it has been just a little too easy to build a massive condo complex in the city — are the development charges anywhere near appropriate for the increased infrastructure costs?

As an aside, I think the city missed a great opportunity with the massive build-out along certain corridors: as long as the ground was being dug up all along Queen/King or the lakeshore for condos, subway lines could have been being built as part of the foundations, stipulated as a necessary part of the design. Then a new subway line (or lines!) would not only track the developments so it would be where the population density was, but would require minimal work from the city itself (connect the fragments together, bridge the area that was already built-up around University).

Back to the question of what to do: I think one goal should be the diversion of growth to the other great cities in Ontario: Hamilton, Guelph-K-W, Kingston, Barrie, Windsor, and of course my adopted hometown, London.

Now, how to redirect the growth there?

I think we can start by throwing incentives right out the window: paying people to move out of Toronto just won’t work, and will be expensive to boot. How do I know it won’t work? There’s already a big economic incentive to not live in Toronto: car insurance is higher, food is more expensive, and the big one: houses are more expensive (you can get more for less than half the price in London) — though a large part of that is a temporary artifact of the housing bubble. All-told, I estimate that it’s about 30% more expensive to live in Toronto, and that’s before lifestyle inflation and the unspoken psychic cost of the godawful commute.

So let’s instead examine why someone possessed with rational thought and a bit of a frugal streak would want to live in Toronto, and try to play off that. Enter Wayfare: she’s got a master’s degree, is not against saving money, and has spent time in London to see that it is an awesome place with ducks and decent transit, so she’s not blindly biased against the mullet perception. Why then did she want to move to Toronto?

  • The network effect: her family is in Toronto, and even though London is only a 2-hour drive to go visit, and Hamilton under an hour, she wants to be closer (to be fair, her family has been super-helpful with Blueberry and drop in for a visit twice a week or even more often). A high population begets more population.
  • The two-body problem: though there’s a lot of high-tech research, education, and health care in London, it’s tough for a professional spouse to find gainful employment. This is, I suppose, another facet of the network effect of large cities.
  • Certain infrastructure is better in Toronto: though London is a regional medical centre, and you can get an MRI or an oncologist really easily there, good luck trying to find a GP to give you a regular check-up. For some reason even though UWO churns out plenty of doctors, all the GPs want to move to Toronto to set up practice. London has a few good restaurants, but Toronto has so many that you can go around stiffing waitstaff on tips for years before you have to revisit a place and risk having your food spat upon.
  • The prestige of the big city: I think this is something that mostly affects the female mindset, perhaps because of the giant phallus anchoring the city, but I have been told that there is just something “magical” about Toronto: London has some decent malls, and you can buy anything you want there (or from the internet, like civilized geeks), but “the shopping is better in Toronto”. London has movie theatres and sports teams, and for the number of times most people (including us) actually go to the ROM/AGO/Canada’s Wonderland/Ontario Place/Jay’s game/fringe/a musical, it’s no problem to make the short drive down. Yet somehow it’s not enough to know that it’s possible to get to all that occasional stuff when you want it, it has to be right there, just in case.
  • Putting down roots: the flip side of the godawful commuting is that commuting is taken for granted in Toronto. I could quit my job, and likely find a different job that’s also in Toronto, and then commute there… even if it’s on the other side of the city. That would be considered normal. A lot of changes can take place without having to move. Conversely, as nice as London is, if I were to quit a job there odds are my next job might not be in London, or it might involve a move within the city to be closer (because you don’t live in London to commute).

I know that Toronto is full. I believe that the growth rate is going to crash sometime in the next few decades as people find that reality inescapable. Whether because it just gets too expensive and run-down for people to continue to pour in (the New York model), or because the reeking masses of humanity start to turn to crime and rioting (the Detroit model), or because people just can’t keep up an intrinsic reproductive rate when they’re all living in 400 sq ft shoeboxes… but looking at that list, I have no idea what can be done to try to redirect the population growth now, before it gets worse. The network effect is hard to break: the government can move more functions to London, Hamilton, and Kingston, but that won’t necessarily create jobs for lawyers, salesfolk, or librarians. Paying businesses or people to move is expensive (and ineffectual).

There’s the cargo cult approach: build the trappings of a world-class city in the hopes that people will show up. Though I think something practical like a subway might help, the art galleries, theatres, concert halls, and museums of smaller centres have been little more than money pits. After all, someone who’s actually attracted to a city for its “culture” isn’t going to be fooled by Orchestra London, and Hamilton theatre snobs will still just drive to Toronto for their Mirvish or fringe fix.

We could try the stick approach, but the League of Shadows didn’t look so friendly in the Batman movies…

2 Responses to “Toronto is Full”

  1. Netbug Says:

    I have been fortunate enough to have not had to commute to my job (or at least far to it) in the better part of a decade.

    I simply cannot understand how to rationalize an hour each way (I think I read that the AVERAGE in Toronto is now 80 minutes); the psychological, physical, and financial offsets for that just, to my mind, cannot justify it. I haven’t been on the TTC in the better part of a decade either and the horror stories of commuters are not enticing me to change that.

    Aside from friends/family, truly the only thing keeping me in Toronto now is my job. In the early 90’s, Toronto was an awesome place to live, but now, it’s just… too many people. I live up at the 401 and the 404 and as you said, forget trying to get ANYWHERE between about 3pm and 7pm. It’s just insane.

    I think Toronto has really dropped the ball on the transit system, and though I’m sure it’s more complex than that, having that many people is feasible if you can move them quickly, comfortably, and efficiently.

    The subway is the biggest problem with this. Just a quick look at this comparative graphic shows a huge discrepancy with similarly densely populated metropolises.

    I don’t ride the subway. I don’t take the TTC at all, or the Go, but I have no objections to a small tax increase to better deal with the congestion if the city is held accountable for implementing that plan in a reasonable timeframe. Even though I’m not a rider, more efficiency for those that do would greatly improve my quality of life in the city.

  2. Potato Says:

    I like that map.

    The rationalization I think comes partly from the way people rationalize other insanities of Toronto (such as housing prices): that’s just the cost of living there.